Established in 2018, Cambridge City Foodbank’s Fairbite shop offers people the opportunity to access a wide selection of foods for a small membership fee. The service is available to local people who are referred by a professional agency, such as a children’s centre or housing association, because they are struggling to afford to buy food for themselves and their families.
The food in the Fairbite shop is mainly surplus stock from the warehouse and some is excess supermarket stock, which comes from the national charity FareShare. Fruit and vegetables are donated by Histon Produce. In January, we spoke to Suzie and Lisa, two of our long-standing Fairbite volunteers to find out what a normal shift is like and how the pandemic has challenged the way the service operates.
What is a typical volunteering shift like at Fairbite?
Lisa: “During ‘normal’ times we have three volunteers per session, and we usually begin by sorting fruit and vegetables for the day ready for members to choose from, doing admin tasks like checking money and logging on to the computer, and generally checking the shop is tidy and welcoming for members. We then choose a role of either greeting members at the door, taking money and recording members’ visits onto the computer, or helping members in the shop and checking out their shopping. The roles do not need to be fixed for the day and we often swap around depending on who is trained to do what.”
Suzie: “I’ve been volunteering at Fairbite since the very beginning and every session is interesting – it’s never the same day twice. I always enjoy seeing and chatting to our clients, although now, during the lockdown, as we are handing out ‘food parcels’ instead of allowing people into the shop, it is, of course, very different.”
How has the pandemic impacted your time volunteering at the Fairbite shop?
Lisa: “In ‘normal’ times members come in three at a time to do their shop, but during the pandemic, when we were not in a tight lockdown, this was reduced to one member in the shop at a time which, consequentially, meant that other members were sometimes waiting outside for longer.
“Now we are in lockdown again, we are not able to allow members into the shop at all and instead we offer a pre packed bag of food including fresh fruit and vegetables at no charge. While most members understand this essential change to our practice and appreciate their free bag, there can sometimes be disappointment at not being able to choose their own items from the shop.”
Suzie: “Because so many volunteers have needed to step back from volunteering for their safety during the pandemic, which is of course very understandable at the moment, I will now usually do a shift every week and have been doing so since March 2020. This is a positive thing for me as I enjoy being in a routine, the clients know who is going to be there and we have a good rapport with them. We now have just two volunteers and one as a ‘standby’ at each session and, overall, I think the system is working very well, even with the rules and problems that the pandemic has brought.”
What are the highs and lows of volunteering from your perspective?
Suzie: “It makes me sad that there is so much need. But, it’s wonderful when clients are so grateful for all the volunteers at Fairbite and for everything that we do for them. The children always make me laugh and some of the things our clients will buy when they can come into the shop give me a chuckle. Once, one lady had a basket full of Japanese crispy seaweed… that was all she wanted! The real highlight for me is getting to know our clients and finding out about their lives, interests and families.”
Lisa: “I really enjoy meeting other volunteers and having conversations about our lives and ideas and motivations for volunteering. It is also rewarding to build relationships with regular members in the knowledge that we are making a difference to their lives. I love meeting new members and their families, maybe bringing a smile to a child’s face by offering a kind word and a sweet (though we don’t see many children during lockdown). In December it was wonderful to see members’ delight because of the Christmas hampers we were able to offer – these really were appreciated.
“Sometimes members choose to share details of their lives and experiences which can be difficult to hear, but we listen and appreciate that we are perceived as trustworthy. We may be able to offer some signposting advice or simply offer a sympathetic ear.”
Where would you like to see Fairbite in 12 months’ time.
Suzie: “Continuing as ever! I would like to go back to having chilled food items available for clients, but it all depends on the pandemic and how it progresses – we will keep adapting as we need to in order to keep operating and providing support to people in Cambridge.”
Lisa: “Over the next year, I hope that Fairbite is able to continue offering the service which our members appreciate and which is so definitely needed in our area. I also hope that we will soon be able to welcome back some of our volunteers who have not been able to work at the shop during the pandemic, they have been missed and it would be wonderful to see them again.”