Spotlight on Northstowe

The Northstowe Foodbank centre opened in June 2021, a collaboration between the Pathfinder Church, Cambridge City Foodbank and South Cambs District Council.

We spoke to Rev Dr Beth Cope, lead minister at Pathfinder Church and Mihaela Stan and Kathryn Beck, of South Cambs District Council’s Northstowe Community Development team, about how the centre was established, the ever-growing Northstowe community and the challenges of setting up a Foodbank in a new town.

Can you explain a little about the process of setting up the Northstowe Foodbank centre?

Beth Cope: Several strands came together in Northstowe and led to the opening of the Foodbank centre. One was a recognition of need. After hearing about local families at risk of going hungry, I signed up to be a voucher distributor. And then the pandemic hit. Travelling became more difficult and I was calling on help from local voluntary groups and charities like Care Network to help pick up food from central Cambridge and deliver it to voucher holders stuck at home.

So, then we tried an experiment. We added Northstowe to the route for the Foodbank delivery van and stored a small number of boxes in some spare space in a closed community facility. The building wasn’t open to the public but, together with local volunteers, I was able to do socially distanced doorstep drops for those in need.

At the same time, the South Cambs District Council was talking to the Trussell Trust about how to get a more “normal” distribution centre up and running. The idea was to open in the “Community Wing” which was, at the time, unused classrooms in the primary school.

We had established that there was enough need and a venue had been found, so all that was left to do was to start recruiting volunteers. We put the word out with the help of the Kathryn and Mihaela’s team at the District Council and were delighted when people came forward. When the pandemic restrictions lifted, we were able to officially open the new Northstowe Distribution Centre (with masks and hand sanitiser aplenty!) in June 2021.

This might have been a “happily ever after” moment, but growing communities bring challenges. As the population has developed, so too has the primary school and the spare classrooms are now needed back for their original intended educational purpose. In the last few months, many discussions have been had about where the best interim venue would be until Northstowe gets more permanent community space.

In the interim, we’re very grateful that the District Council has supported us to find another temporary home in Northstowe Secondary School. This is a good solution, but we’re looking forward to finding a long-term home for the Foodbank in the next few months. Because the school is located in a part of town still being developed, it’s not as easy to get to, especially without a car and, being part of a school site brings challenges, because people often want greater anonymity. Right now, it’s the best place there is but we’re working on the “what next”.

Please tell us a little about the community that the Northstowe Foodbank serves?

Beth: As many are aware, Northstowe is a brand new town on the edge of Cambridge. The first residents moved in five years ago and there are now about 1,300 occupied homes – out of a planned 10,000! The population is much younger and more ethnically diverse than the surrounding villages. Some people have moved locally, but many are new to Cambridgeshire and so often don’t have the normal social networks, with no family or close friends nearby; meaning that there is no one to call upon when times are hard.

We often give out vouchers to people who’ve just arrived; the costs of moving, often while waiting for benefits to change across, or for a new job to start, make this a very vulnerable time for many people and there is a real danger of social isolation too. At the same time, many of the people moving in have come with optimism, they are looking to be part of something, to shape this new town and that’s a great opportunity!

South Cambs District Council: 40% of the new build houses in Northstowe are required to be social or affordable houses, which you could say contributes to the level of need in the town but, in reality, it’s a real mixed bag of people, from all walks of life, that visit the centre.

As well as supporting residents, the Northstowe Foodbank is in an excellent location for people in the surrounding villages; it’s easily accessible by the busway and means people from Swavesey, for example, don’t need to travel all the way into Cambridge city to get help.

What have been the highlights of facilitating the Northstowe Foodbank centre?

Beth: Here in Northstowe, because there are so few community facilities, we all recognise that collaboration is the best way to “punch above our weight” and get things started well for our new town.

So, as a church, we’ve thrown ourselves into many opportunities to work together with those of all faiths and none. For example, members of the church have been part of starting up a community café and we’ve also started a youth organization, again, working with as many diverse partners as we can. For us, supporting the Foodbank is a key part of belonging to the community.

SCDC: Being able to work closely with the Foodbank is really beneficial for our work and enables us to better engage and build relationships with people in the community. This includes the brilliant team of volunteers, many of whom support with a range of other community initiatives across Northstowe.

It also means we are able to engage with those ‘harder to reach’ people who are visiting the Foodbank, and ensure they can be signposted to the support they need. This enables us to work strategically to establish networks and community initiatives that will most benefit the people of Northstowe.

And the key challenges?

Beth: In a new town, recruiting volunteers is tricky. It takes a while for people to settle in enough to have capacity to volunteer. The demographic of Northstowe also means that there are few residents without caring responsibilities around in the daytime. We are very grateful to an experienced Foodbank volunteer who moved across to help coordinate the early sessions and we’re pleased our homegrown volunteer base is starting to expand too.

SCDC: Finding a suitable location for the Foodbank has been a challenge. The Secondary School, while a good interim solution, is quite a distance from the centre of town and the busway, so is not ideal. Some visitors have to walk quite a distance with their food parcels, which isn’t ideal, especially in the recent hot weather!

Another challenge, of course, is the ever growing need that the cost of living crisis is causing. At Northstowe, we anticipate the centre will keep getting busier and this will require careful planning in terms of both volunteers and location.

What impact do you think the Foodbank has had on the Northstowe community?

Beth: It has been a real privilege to see the difference the Foodbank has made to some people in times of crisis; I’ve been able to meet people in the months after they’ve visited us and it’s amazing to hear how things have got better for them. We know that, for some, the human interaction with the volunteers has been just as much needed as the food. By signposting visitors to other free or low-cost community services, people have also been able to better embed themselves within the community. We are also able to help those living outside of Northstowe to pick up food anonymously; that’s important too.

The Foodbank centre is also making a difference to the volunteers. I can see how several have grown in confidence. And there is always a great buzz between them. It’s such a friendly group!