Mel Furr, social supermarket member and volunteer

Every month, we speak to someone from Cambridge City Foodbank whose hard work and dedication has made a difference to our organisation and the local community.

This month, we spoke to Mel Furr, a member and volunteer at St. George’s Church social supermarket in Chesterton. Read on to learn more about Mel, her journey to her current role and what she likes to do when she’s not volunteering!

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your current role?

I’ve lived in Cambridge for my entire life, which has meant that I’ve lived all over the city!  At the moment I live in Chesterton, which is where I spent my teenage years and I’m really loving living here.

I volunteer at St. George’s Church, where I’m still a member. As a volunteer, we’ll come in and set up the shop, lay out the refreshments for the people who arrive early and then we get started on taking in a delivery from Sainsburys, which usually comes between 12-1pm. A delivery like this can take some time as there can be up to 22 crates! These are then brought into the storeroom where they are unpacked and sorted, ready to be put onto the shelves. After this, we let the members in who have arrived early for tea and coffee, chat to them and make them feel at ease before the shop opens at 2pm. From then until 3:30pm, we help members shop, chat to them as they shop and get to know them.

Outside of the social supermarket, we run member discussion groups where they can give us their feedback and raise any issues they’re having. I’m chairing the next meeting, which I’m relatively new to, but knowing that it’s going to be with people that we’ve spent time building relationships with puts my mind at ease. It’s a really welcoming, positive environment that is focussed on that idea of community. With my experience as a member, I will be able to ensure everyone has a service they are happy with.

How and when did you start volunteering at Hope Fairbite?

I found out about the social supermarket at St. George’s Church after speaking to a friend, and I used to attend every Tuesday. At that point, I hadn’t considered volunteering. It was only after I started to speak to one of the volunteers at the time who he suggested I consider it as he said my friend and I had the qualities to make great volunteers. I gave it a go and have been a volunteer since July 2023. I haven’t looked back since – I really do enjoy it.

In our volunteering role it is important for us to remember that our members can feel anxious about coming, and others may feel lonely. So the team and I always make an effort to speak to people as they shop so it’s a place they enjoy coming to. It’s important to provide a service that people want to use, but we also want to create a sense of community so that people feel at ease.

For someone who doesn’t know, what is the experience of visiting a social supermarket like for a member?

To be able to use the social supermarket, a person needs to register and become a member. Once a member, they are welcomed in with tea, coffee and biscuits, which gives them a chance to chat to us and other members to make them feel at ease. Then, once the shop is open, the members pay their membership fee and are then free to shop. Some of our members have dietary requirements so we are on hand to help them find suitable items.

Our shelves include meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and baby items. As some of these items are key for a lot of people, we do, unfortunately, have to limit how many they can have per shop, and these are clearly labelled.

How has your experience as a member impacted your role as a volunteer?

As a member, you’re aware of the anxiety that comes with going to a social supermarket. That’s why I make it a focus to talk to members and get to know them on an individual level. I have previously worked in retail, so I find talking to a variety people quite easy. Sometimes I think people come partly for the interaction, because it is comfortable for them; it’s nice for them to be part of a supportive community and have familiar faces to talk to.

Finally, what are some of things you enjoy doing while you’re away from volunteering?

I enjoy socialising with my friends, as well as walking my dog. Aside from that, I absolutely love crafting! I am currently in the process of knitting a blanket for my grandson, who we’re expecting in July. I’ve already knitted one and it’s going to be a busy few months getting things ready for his arrival!