A week before the lockdown, North Warwickshire Borough Councillors and a local resident Paul Byrne came together to discuss how we could help our community during what we knew would be an unprecedented time for peacetime Britain.
The ‘normal’ way of life would change for many people, and access to basic supplies and prescriptions could disappear for a large section of our community. The financial position for many would undoubtedly change in the weeks and months ahead.
Like many communities, we quickly developed a volunteer network from scratch, initially meeting via Zoom and allocating all of the roads in our village to specific volunteers. The local council printed the leaflets, which included details of how to verify their authenticity through the local Councillors. We took copies of each volunteer’s ID as an added layer of security.
Orders for prescriptions and food quickly started coming in. Councillors and volunteers meet via Zoom twice a week on a Tuesday and a Friday to discuss any issues and plan for the future.
We quickly realised that we needed the option of a cashless system to protect the vulnerable and our volunteers. Working with the local small supermarket Whitmores, we brought £1000 of vouchers through the Councillor delegated budget we hold. The vouchers enabled a cashless system which residents could reimburse in cash after the event or online via our Just Giving page. We only ask for a donation to cover costs if people can afford it. We also worked with the local pharmacies to ensure we had a system in place to support them and our volunteers access the medicines our residents need in a timely manner.
After a couple of weeks, it became clear that there was a huge demand for accessing basic supplies, both through our volunteer network for the vulnerable and the general population. So, we established the Polesworth Food Hub, which is essentially an honesty shop to get fresh local produce and basic supplies. Using the delegated budget local Councillors hold, we rented some commercial fridges and got in touch with local shops to see how they could help. Through our volunteer network, we sourced donations. We turned our local community centre into a pop-up food honesty shop. In Birchmoor, a neighbouring village which is part of our parish, neighbourhood watch co-ordinators John and Sandra and their team of volunteers joined forces with us to open a similar scheme at their community centre.
On Sunday 5th April, we opened the doors the first time with over 2000 different items, but mainly bread, milk and fresh fruit and veg we had brought through our Councillor fund. That first hour was slow, depressingly slow in fact. We didn’t have the long line of people outside that we were expecting. We had just 36 people through the door throughout the day. We had so much stock left over; we had to open the next day to try and reduce the waste.
On Monday we doubled the number of people through the door. Word of mouth was spreading our message. It was clear the demand was there; we just had to get the word out far and wide.
We opened the following week again, with more stock and lots of donations from kind local companies. We got to the 10 am opening time, and as we flung open the doors, there was a long line of people outside. In total, we helped feed hundreds of people that day.
The same happened the third week. We had a line of people outside for a good couple of hours, every single person with a different reason for being there. Some were struggling financially; others were elderly who didn’t feel safe using the big supermarkets, and some just wanted to support this community venture.
In total, we’ve received over £4000 in donations from residents, businesses and honesty shop users. We’ve fed hundreds of people, and through the honesty shop, we’ve met people who desperately needed other help who we’ve been able to refer on to get mortgage breaks, benefits support and business grants.
A month ago, most of our team didn’t even know each other. Today we’ve built a community network of over 70 volunteers and a partnership with the local Spar, the Tamworth Co-operative Society, the local bakers and farm shop. I’ve never seen anything so amazing in my nearly ten years as a Parish and then Borough Councillor. It’s been truly humbling to be a part of this amazing local collective.
It’s at times like this when people come together, and through co-operation, we’ve already changed the lives of so many families and individuals. This has been a source of light in what are very dark times for very many people.