There’s no shame in needing to use a foodbank – except the shame we should probably feel as a country that they need to exist at all.
Yet pride can stop some of the UK’s neediest people coming forward to use them, leaving them facing impossible choices and even risking malnutrition. Others feel they aren’t poor enough to accept help, even though they’re struggling.
Step forward, Number Seven.
Opened just over a year ago in the centre of Birkenhead, Britain’s first “citizens’ supermarket” is an affordable shop that gives dignity back to people who need help paying for food by offering them groceries that are cut price, but not free.
Its customers are people like cancer survivor and former nurse Sarah Docherty, 66, who says she would otherwise be living off powdered mash and frozen fish; a recently widowed pensioner who had never controlled her own finances before; and others so far below the breadline that staff are shocked by their bank statements.
Sarah is buying a large pack of fresh diced chicken breast when HuffPost UK catches up with her at the shop in the centre of Birkenhead, in the Wirral.
It’s run by Feeding Britain, a national charity that aims to eliminate hunger in the UK.
Number Seven is run on an income-based membership scheme. Those shopping here gain a discount of up to two-thirds on their weekly food shopping compared to what they would pay in regular supermarkets.
Sarah, who has three children, 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, told HuffPost UK she is currently receiving employment and support allowance but will soon be moved on to the state pension and anticipates she will be on less money.
A former a psychiatric nurse, she had to leave work due to ill health and two years ago, she had lung cancer and a heart attack. She described Number Seven as a “halfway house” between foodbanks and supermarkets and said buying from the citizens’ supermarket is like “buying luxury brands” for her.
Her shopping – which includes two Hunters Chicken ready meals, a pack of Double Gloucester cheese with chives, chocolate bars, mini tortilla wraps and the fresh chicken breast and various snacks – comes to just £6.10. “That would have cost me £15 to £20 in other shops.” she said.
She admits she would either not have bought this food at all in other supermarkets or bought inferior brands. “Before I came here, I was buying things like bags of cheap frozen fish and having it with powdered mash,” she said.
“At first, I didn’t come here as pride kept me away as I thought it was for people who were really poor. But without this supermarket, I wouldn’t be eating as luxurious. It makes you feel a little better.
“Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be on bread and butter, but I’d be eating basic frozen food and buying value or economy brands.”
Asked if she’d ever used a foodbank, Sarah said: “I don’t think my income is that low that I can’t pay for what I have. I would sooner leave that for people who desperately need it.
“As long as I can pay even a small amount, that’s fine by me. I wouldn’t like to go to a foodbank and take food from someone in dire need when I can spend a few pounds and buy food from here. I would feel like I was being greedy. I don’t feel I am in that bad of a situation that I need a foodbank.”
The supermarket is open to single people earning less than £1,066 a month, and couples and families with an income of less than £1,666 – figures based on the free school meals application criteria.
But Number Seven staff say many of the people who come through their doors are surviving on a lot less.
“We sometimes have to pinch ourselves when people tell us how little they are on,” said Andrew Pilling, general manager at Number Seven. They ask for proof of income – a bank statement, wage slip or Universal Credit journal – but insist they are “not just here for people on benefits, but everyone”.
The stoicism of pensioners who had been struggling on very little before coming to Number Seven has been eye-opening for Pilling and his team.
“It is like the war mentality,” he said. “They think: ‘We got through that – we can get through this,’ and they just ‘make do’.
“It is wrong. And when you see what some of them are on even with pension credit, they are still not anywhere near the financial criteria and some are miles off.
“Some people don’t want to seek what they deem as charitable help. Foodbanks are a great thing as they help people who need it. But when people go to foodbanks, they don’t have the choice and are given bags of food.
“We are different as people can come in and buy whatever they want and there is fresh food. With the cafe being open to all, there is no stigma or anyone feeling like they are going into a ‘poor supermarket.’”
Number Seven now has 711 members and is signing up about 15 new ones a week.
Members are issued with a membership card that allows them access into the supermarket and a 50% discount in the cafe which is open to everyone. They can visit the supermarket as often as they want and buy whatever they want – the only restriction is fresh meat items, which the supermarket doesn’t get many of, so are limited to one per customer.
An array of food is lined up on shelves with the prices displayed just like any other supermarket. There are trolleys and shopping baskets and even a scanner and card payments including contactless at the till.
The only real difference is the prices: 1kg boxes of cereal for £1, cooking sauce jars for 30p, ready meals from 75p and large packs of mince for £1.20.
Pilling said: “The main objective is to make it look and feel like any other supermarket so people can shop with dignity and have choice and selection. Unfortunately, with the way society is, people fear the stigma of being classed as ‘poor’.”
Snapshot data from December 2019 shows that the average Number Seven member saved £27.54 a week on their food shopping – which equates to £1,432 a year. At this rate, over the coming year Feeding Birkenhead is hoping to put a collective total of £1m back into the pockets of some of the area’s poorest households.
Andrew Forsey, national director of Feeding Britain, said: “We are helping people who have not yet hit crisis point but might be behind on their rent or bills. They might just be one bill away from a foodbank.
“It used to be that people would only go to a foodbank when they were in crisis. But now it is becoming a regular part of their life, particularly for people in casual work or on zero-hour contracts who just don’t know how much they are going to be earning.
“We are also helping working-age families with children and disabled people whose incomes are simply inadequate after a decade of cuts to benefits and tax credits. Universal Credit is often cited by our members too.
“In years gone by, when people were struggling, there was the welfare state to fall back on. But that has essentially gone and we are having to rebuild our own mutual welfare state to help people through tough times.”
Number Seven also provides advice and advocacy on benefits, budgeting, debt and looking for work. Some members also volunteer at the cafe to gain work experience.
Pilling said: “I had one 72-year-old woman come in recently who was on her last bit of food. She had been living on pasta that had been in her cupboards for a long time. Her husband had died and he had taken care of everything and given her weekly money. Without him, she didn’t know what to do.
“We made her a cup of coffee, had a long chat and were able to get her the help she needed.”
For many, Number Seven is a haven and the chance to meet some friendly faces to stop them feeling isolated. Allan Robinson, 51, who is unemployed and suffers from depression, angina and other health issues, told HuffPost UK he visits Number Seven two or three times a week. “It has helped me come out of myself and instead of being isolated and stuck in the house, I am meeting people and getting a bunch of friends. The people are so caring and kind and the food in the cafe and supermarket is reasonably priced.
“With the money I get at the moment on benefits, without here, I would really struggle. You can stretch your pennies and make them last longer.”
But Allan says for him, the most important part of Number Seven is having a reason to get out of the house. “There are a lot of bad things which have happened in my life which play on my mind including my brother taking his own life last year. When I stay in the house, that’s when the anxiety and depression kicks in.”
The food supplies at Number Seven come from surplus stocks that are redistributed at nil or low cost from shops and manufacturers. The project partners with FareShare, His Church and a number of local retailers to provide a range of fresh, chilled and ambient food and has saved many tonnes of food that would otherwise have gone to waste.
Daily collections take place from M&S and Aldi – while Kelloggs, which has its main depot in Manchester, supplies large quantities of breakfast cereal and tubes of Pringles.
Pilling said: “Some of the food is very short-dated so sometimes, we only have a couple of days to move it on. But some food with a ‘best before’ date such as jars, dried pasta and boxes of rice comes with an advice note from the manufacturer allowing extra time. We can show customers the advice note and the price of the food reflects this.
“We give some food away for free. M&S has a policy where they bake their bread fresh every day. Whatever they don’t sell that day, they donate to us and we put it on a table in the supermarket telling customers to take it.”
There is a concerted effort not to waste any food and the cafe, which has daily specials including lasagne and Scouse, makes use of as many ingredients as possible.
But Forsey says with demand increasing due to high levels of poverty, it is a constant battle trying to acquire enough food.
“There are people in such severe poverty that they are in destitution and some are going days without food,” he told HuffPost UK.
“Nobody will ever leave here hungry but it is a sad indictment of society today that places like this are needed.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.