Merrilyn Fry, profile piece

Cambridge City Foodbank has been providing emergency food support to people experiencing food poverty since 2010. This month, we spoke to one of the very first people to be involved in the Foodbank – long serving volunteer, Merrilyn Fry.

Read on to hear about how Cambridge City Foodbank was first formed, how it has changed over the years, and what Merrilyn’s day-to-day responsibilities are.

Can you tell us a bit about your life before the Foodbank?

I was born and raised in Hertfordshire and most of my working life was spent in the NHS. I worked as a Contract Officer and in the supplies department, before eventually becoming PA to the Director of Supply for NHS Hertfordshire. I had to retire early due to my husband’s work relocating, which is how I ended up in Cambridgeshire. I now live in Wicken, which is technically closer to Ely than Cambridge, but I volunteer with Cambridge City Foodbank.

How did you come to get involved in the Foodbank?

I’ve been a member of the C3 Church in Cambridge for years now, and I’ve always felt that churches should support their local communities by helping to meet the needs of those around them. In 2010, our Pastor recognised the growing need for emergency food support in the city and sought to set up a foodbank. As it turns out, the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs (OLEM) and St Paul’s Church had already begun the vital work of establishing a foodbank, which resulted in all three churches working together. Eventually, C3, OLEM, and St. Paul’s formed the Cambridge City Foodbank and began looking for people to help support it, which is when I got involved.

How has the Foodbank changed over the years?

When the Foodbank was first formed, it operated out of one small unit in Pickford’s Self Store. The donation levels at that time were fairly low because relatively few people were aware of it. Gradually, as word got out, we started to receive greater numbers of donations, which meant we had to expand our base of operations. We ended up with four different units at Pickford’s, all of which were located on different floors – this was great fun but extremely physical! At this time, we didn’t have a transit van, which meant the distribution teams had to use their own vehicles to collect the food for their sessions.

There soon came a time when we had to look for a proper warehouse facility, which is when we moved to Unit 4 at Orwell Furlong. Shortly after our move to Unit 4, we purchased a transit van for delivering to our distribution centres and collecting supermarket bin donations. Even more recently, we took over Unit 3 as we had outgrown Unit 4 and the transit van was joined by a smaller electric van. Looking back, it’s incredible to see how quickly the Foodbank has grown from one small unit at Pickford’s to two full warehouses at Orwell Furlong. The growth in terms of food incoming and outgoing too has been astronomical.

When we first started, the distribution centres were also relatively small and quiet, but as things have grown and increased, more partner agencies have come on board who are able to issue an increased number of food vouchers. As more vouchers are issued, demand in the distribution centres grows. We started off with two or three distribution centres and now we have eight, with at least one centre open every weekday. It has also been a pleasure to see the introduction and expansion of our Fairbite membership clubs.

What are your current roles and responsibilities at the Foodbank?
Initially, I was involved with admin support and worked closely with Urszula from OLEM who helped establish the Foodbank. I’m now officially known as the General Enquiries Coordinator, which means I answer the incoming phone calls, respond to emails and social media direct messages, referring to staff/volunteers as necessary. I’ve also always been involved in the on-the-ground distribution centres, and I still volunteer to hand out food packages with the team at C3 on Fridays.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re away from the Foodbank?

When I’m not supporting the Foodbank, I’m a homemaker. I edit my local village magazine, I organise a village friendship group and I love to read. I also do quite a lot of baking and cooking, and I enjoy sunbathing – particularly so with the recent stunning weather!

Can you tell about a particular moment that stands out from your time with the Foodbank?

My favourite moments are when a visitor is clearly relieved that we have been able to assist them– either by giving them a package of food, by referring them to an external agency or just by listening to them. It is rewarding to know that we are able to make people’s lives a little bit easier.

One example of this is when we recently provided a family with some tickets to the botanic gardens. Following their visit, the family returned to the Foodbank – not to collect food, but just to say thanks and to tell us about what a fantastic day they had. These sorts of moments are really special – It gives me a real lift when I know that we’ve done something kind and caring for someone.