A community leader says now is the time to “challenge and change” attitudes and stigma surrounding poverty to make the biggest difference as Scotland exits lockdown.
The Haven Community Larder in Stonehaven has experienced a “massive increase” in demand over recent months and is now assisting hundreds of people every week.
This has included people furloughed on lower wages who are increasingly struggling to feed their families, or others without any income who are unable to make ends meet.
But The Haven founder and director, Julia Morton, said schemes such as hers can benefit many more people in the wider community.
And her team is hoping to spread the message even further with a series of special events.
Larder set-up challenges stigma
Unlike a food bank, the larder is open to everyone without requiring a referral or giving personal details, and people can choose as many items as often as they require.
Mrs Morton says allowing everyone access – whether or not they believe they need it – reduces possible stigma by giving others “permission” to do the same.
By the end of 2020, the highest single-month total for visitors to The Haven was 630.
But in January this rose to 860 – as many other avenues for support were closed over the Christmas break – and it remained at about 740 in February.
The larder was initially set up in Mrs Morton’s yoga studio, which she was inspired to start while teaching the exercises at a maximum security prison.
It has since moved to Stonehaven Community Centre to better meet demand.
Mrs Morton said: “We’re undertaking a community consultation right now, as we’re looking at launching a membership scheme in May and we’re asking what that could look like.
“We’re learning that the people who use us don’t tend to use food banks as well.
“Around half are people on furlough, and that 20% difference in wages means they can’t meet their normal needs.
“Others are still working but just can’t make ends meet.
“We’re across the demographic with a spread of young people, middle aged people and so on.
“A lot come to collect on behalf of others, including social workers and community mental health staff.
“I think there’s a 50-50 split of people who are struggling and people who want to support their community as they know they’re reducing stigma.”
Reducing ‘unbelievable’ levels of food waste
Last year The Haven teamed up with Co-Op, Tesco and several other local businesses to help reduce food waste.
Rather than sending products soon to be out-of-date to the rubbish bin, they are instead used to help stock the shelves of the community larder.
Deliveries have included the likes of “lovely” sourdough loaves and “masses” of fresh fruit which, otherwise, would have been consigned to compost heaps.
And, with this in mind, some people have been using the larder to swap these items for others The Haven finds harder to acquire.
Mrs Morton said: “The amount of food waste we go through is unbelievable. You start to feel ill when you see how much is thrown away every day.
“But a lot of people are really passionate about helping.
“We had a group who came in to take away five big boxes of bananas we had and brought other items, like deodorant, nappies and cleaning products instead.
“They are helping to reduce food waste while making a donation to support others.”
Community support ‘vital’
Without support from the wider community, Mrs Morton fears The Haven Community Larder would have been forced to shut.
It launched a crowdfunding campaign in November, hoping to bring in £22,000 to cover the costs of rent, utilities, staffing and training for six months.
By the end of the month, more than £31,000 had been donated to the cause.
Mrs Morton said: “We are seeing people who never envisaged being in a scenario where they are needing help to access food.
“But they have a really positive experience when they engage with the larder.
“Around 20% of people use it every week, while others come in to top up a few times a month, or just occasionally.
“The people who need the larder the most seem to take the least, and they’ll say ‘I already have one can left in the cupboard, so I won’t take one today’.
“It’s really important we challenge and change the narrative here.
“We can bring something positive to our community at a really dark time and that makes the experience so worthwhile for us.”
Next week The Haven will hold its annual wellbeing festival, with a catalogue of online events to help people take note of their mental health and find healthier ways to live.
Mrs Morton added: “When we’re in survival mode, the adrenaline is still going.
“The processing of it comes after the fact.
“If we can prioritise our wellbeing now, then we can learn and create a more resilient community and more safeguarding scenarios to come out of this as whole as we can.”
‘When has wellbeing ever been as important?’
Over the last three years the annual Haven Wellbeing Festival has taken place in person, featuring inspiring talks and drop-in sessions.
Like many other events across the world over the last year, it will also being going virtual for its next instalment.
Though staff at The Haven have been swept off their feet with the community larder, Mrs Morton says it was vital they found time to keep the initiative running.
“We wanted to keep the festival going as it’s a tradition now,” she said.
“We also want to raise opportunities about wellbeing.
“When has that ever been as important as it is now?”
One of the main highlights of the 2021 festival, which runs from March 19-21, is a talk from Dr Suzanne Zeedyk.
The Dundee-based research scientist has promised “uncomfortable insights” into how people and the world as a whole, has changed over the last year of the pandemic.
It is hoped her approach – taking audiences to the edge of their comfort zones in a “gentle and kind” manner – will help people process their experiences.
The festival line-up also includes the launch of a new project to help people grow their own food and make better meals, wellbeing sessions and a virtual get-together for people in the community.
Mrs Morton added: “Usually we have it all scheduled by the September and then we go live in January for the festival in March.
“But this year we were waiting to see what would happen with lockdown – and then decided to plan everything online.
“We’ve organised a smaller number of events because we’re so busy with the community larder.
“I’ve gone from me, myself and I to a team of five as well as 50 volunteers who need to be supported and trained.
“We’re really looking forward to it and I’m so happy to be bringing back Suzanne as she is a wonderful supporter.”
Despite the range of events taking place later this month, The Haven Community Larder will continue with its standard opening hours.
Opening two hours at a time, staff and volunteers will be on hand from 10am on Mondays and Saturdays, 12pm on Tuesdays, 1pm on Wednesdays, 2pm on Thursdays and 5pm on Fridays.
Chat group combats isolation
Through her work with The Haven, Mrs Morton became aware that loneliness, especially during the pandemic, has grown into a major issue.
The organisation has launched the Haven Haverers – a regular informal get-together over video-conferencing where people can relax and interact during a coffee break.
Mrs Morton said: “The people who are lonely often don’t even know.
“So when we’re in that same situation, we’re sometimes not aware of it.
“Even though I was spending all day on Zoom calls, it was always something work-related.”
After experiencing the benefits first-hand, Mrs Morton has encouraged others to consider joining in – both with the chat group and use of the community larder.
“I started attending Haven Haverers and I got so much joy from connecting with other people in the community,” she said.
“It has been really good for my mental wellbeing.
“We see things, and think they’re just for other people, and then you engage with it and see the benefits and realise ‘this is for me, too’.”