To most people, Eastville Park is a leafy oasis to walk, chill and play.
But for some residents of the local area, it’s much more than that. Every Friday since July 2022 the renovated World War 2 Nissen hut becomes a much-appreciated food club.
‘I saw a gap in the area, the top part of Easton, Eastville and the bottom of Fishponds in the provision of food banks,’ says Andy Gee, the co-ordinator who helped start the project. ‘I thought: we’ve got premises, an established group [Friends of Eastville Park (FOEP)] so lots of volunteers, so it was just a question of putting some effort into making it happen and sourcing the food.’
The food club receives its supplies from Fareshare, a national network that resdistributes surplus from the food industry to local food charitities and community groups. Andy pays Fareshare and membership fee of £3,500 per year and in return gets enough to feed 30 people.
‘At the beginning we thought we’d be going round supermarkets and asking for surplus food,’ said Andy. ‘When we heard about Fareshare it was the answer to our prayers.’
At that point, recalls Gee, ‘everyone was talking about the food crisis, food poverty, heat or eat, and that had a resonance because most of us know people, our own family, friends, neighbours, who are struggling, some more than others. We were taking a bit of the pain away from people struggling with their weekly food bills.’
From the outset, it was vitally important to the organisers that they enabled people to get over the stigma as being seen as needing help. ‘We talked about it at the beginning. We wanted people to not feel they needed help, but that we happened to provide it. And we had to be welcoming’.
For £3.50 a week, members choose a large bag of food to last a week. ‘It’s not necessarily for people who are hungry, but people who need to stock the shelves,’ says Gee.
For the helpers, it’s a lot of work. Tuesdays supplies are picked up, sorted and stored. All day Thursday is preparation, taking food off the shelves and boxing up for volunteers to put out. ‘I’m here from 8am on Friday. We open from 12 to 1pm on Friday then afterwards we clean up, put things away, check freezer and fridge temperatures. Luckily we’ve got a lot of storage.’
The food club attracts 35 to 40 people every week. Numbers vary as people drop off, move away, get jobs or find themselves in a better situation.
On a sunny morning, the queue is starting to form at 11.30am as regulars catch up and chat.
Martin, a retired special needs educator and wildlife campaigner, has been coming for nearly a year. ‘I dithered about coming at first,’ he admits. ‘As a committee member I thought it might not look good. But I had a conversation and decided it was fine. It’s absolutely made a difference to life. I get some essentials here so don’t need to include them on the shopping list.
‘It’s introduced me to food I’ve never considered before. Last night a friend came round and we had gnocchi with tomato sauce! It’s nice to get out the house and meet people I didn’t know before like Sarah and Pauline. And enriching to meet other people with something in common, shared values.’
Like Martin, Sarah, an operating department practitioner at Southmead Hospital with a husband and two children, had misgivings about going the food club. ‘I was feeling the pinch in September, like everyone else I was worried. I don’t see myself as rich or poor, so I questioned whether I should join. But Andy said it was for everyone who felt they could benefit and that it was saving food from landfill.’
And like Martin, Sarah is thrilled with the difference the food club has made to her and her family.’It’s amazing! It makes the food go further and we’re trying new things which is nice. I deliberately don’t work on Fridays so I can come here and pick up shifts on other days. we save at least £20 a week, it really takes the pressure off.
‘We chat with people, it’s a bit social, chatting to other people in the community, it’s a great thing we’ve got, a lifesaver.’
Like Martin and Sarah, retired legal secretary Pauline, 73, says she felt ‘awkward’ about joining the food club. ‘I was struggling a bit , then I bumped into one of the volunteers and she suggested I might like to try it. I’m not good at socialising and I like the social side. A lot of the people who come here are very nice, and it’s nice to meet people. I find it hard to meet people.
‘It’s made a huge difference. Apart from the fact that I’ve never had so much food in my life – bringing up my son as a single mother we were loin on GBP5 a week – I was surprised that the people here are so lovely and friendly…far different from what I expected. And the food is brilliant! Fantastic! They have veg and plant-based foods, the volunteers are very sweet…but you have to be here early to be at the front of the queue!’
So the food club members are happy, but what about the volunteers?
Volunteers or activists?
Christina, a former local government officer, is signing people in and collecting membership fees. ‘I got involved when we realised that there was a lot of hardship going on with the cost of living crisis, and we realised it was only going to get worse.
‘We have quite a varied clientele. We’ve had people in tears saying they don’t know how they’re going to get through the weekend.
‘It’s a food club not a food bank so there are no criteria. it’s a lifesaver and I don’t think anyone exploits it. I’m not surprised that working people are here, childcare workers, nurses, all sorts of different jobs. People just generally don’t have money for the cost of things unless they have high-flying jobs.’
‘We’re food activists in that we help people get enough decent food, but the real activism comes in terms of making sure that this isn’t needed. People need to get paid, or benefits, so that they have enough so that no-one needs a food club.’