© Mandy Morgan

A community lifeline through food in Glasgow

Once composed of tenement blocks built as part of the great housing expansion after the Second World War, Glasgow’s north-eastern neighbourhood of Ruchazie was far from pastoral, even if the rolling green hills hinted at a former rural life. But the true nature of the area’s farming past was uncovered when Councillor Mandy Morgan became one of the area’s representatives in 2017.

“When I first got elected, I started looking at our area and our history and how we bring people together. We formed a history group,” she says. A part of this heritage turned out to be a rhubarb farm in the area. “One of our community groups have now gone and foraged some of the original rhubarb that’s growing up behind our house, and they’ve got that growing down at the church,” adds Councillor Morgan. This Ruchazie rhubarb will hopefully be the basis for a social enterprise – locally-produced rhubarb gin.

But the appetite for locally grown vegetables doesn’t stop there. A comprehensive regeneration programme involving building new houses, working with community led housing associations, and the growing presence of a number of allotments in the area, offers hope of another way to bring this community together – the Ruchazie Pantry.

A dignified approach

Opened in September last year, the Pantry offers surplus food and produce to customers at reduced prices and takes inspiration from similar models seen elsewhere in Europe. Anyone who wishes to use the pantry can do so by paying £2.50 (roughly €3) to get £15-worth (around €17) of food, with individual items not bearing prices. Since its opening, the Pantry has proved hugely successful. And with the coronavirus pandemic worsening food-related poverty in the UK’s most deprived areas, the Pantry is a lifeline for Ruchazie.

You’re not coming here because you can’t afford to shop anywhere else, you’re coming here because it’s good to come here.
— Councillor Mandy Morgan

Originally set to open in April 2020, the Pantry was planned pre-pandemic to tackle already-critical food-related issues in one of Scotland’s most deprived neighbourhoods. It taps into the estimated 250,000 tonnes of edible surplus food in the UK and provides a key service to the neighbourhood that goes beyond a conventional food bank. “It’s that issue of turning the tap on our available surplus to allow us to expand and develop a dignified approach to food insecurity,” says Jim Burns, Director of Operations at the Glasgow and West of Scotland branch of FareShare, a food charity that helped Councillor Morgan establish the pantry and continues to provide it with surplus stock.

It’s this focus on dignity that has won the initiative praise and contributed to its success, according to Burns. “It’s a shopping experience. It needs to look like a shop, feel like a shop… It’s the whole shopping experience that makes it dignified,” he says. “People are going in and getting the same selection. They don’t feel like it’s surplus or end-of-life or poor-quality food – because it isn’t.”

Councillor Morgan adds: “There are people that have come into Ruchazie and said, ‘that’s not what I was expecting… I would shop here!’ It’s about coming in and feeling like you’re everybody else. You’re not coming here because you can’t afford to shop anywhere else, you’re coming here because it’s good to come here. Food would end up in landfill if we don’t use it. But obviously it’s good for your pocket as well.” A quick look inside the Pantry confirms this. A clean shopping experience and shelves full of name-brand products make it almost indistinguishable from the thousands of local supermarkets and shops that nestle themselves in high streets and local areas across Scotland and the UK.

But the approach also reflects the Scottish Government’s strategy on food security, which is underpinned by dignity. A report from the Independent Working Group on Food in 2016 outlined some key ways to ensure dignity in a food strategy, including leaving people with the power to choose – something not as easy to ensure with other forms of food aid such as food parcels.

Lifting the community

Going beyond a dignified yet accessible local social supermarket, the Pantry serves as a community hub with a space for courses or helping them get back into work. The food is a way of inviting Ruchazie residents who may not engage with the community on a regular basis: “There are people that I’d never met before,” says Councillor Morgan. Unfortunately, this aspect has yet to be fully developed due to ongoing social distancing needs but will become more important once the public health situation improves.

Now, the Pantry may likely become one of many across Glasgow as the network expands to other neighbourhoods. But the City Council, through its work on food through forums like Eurocities’ Working Group Food, knows that you can’t treat food as a standalone issue – food aid requires joined-up thinking. One of the issues faced by many who are in precarious situations is mobility.

After the removal of two bus lines in Glasgow’s East End due to “lack of use”, many vulnerable people were left without access to large supermarkets in the neighbourhoods of Parkhead and Easterhouse. “The nearest shop is about half an hour’s walk away – it’s a frozen food shop. It’s downhill, then back uphill with all your shopping, with no bus service to take you there. It’s a struggle for people in that area,” says Councillor Morgan. As a result of this, the City Council has begun working with Community Transport Glasgow to allow door-to-door access for isolated residents to the various Pantries.

This integrated approach has seen the Ruchazie Pantry go from strength to strength. Despite Covid, the Pantry has surpassed the vision laid out in its business plan, with “the kind of numbers we were seeing in the first few weeks of the Pantry [forecast] in years two and three”, according to the Councillor. Successful beginnings, without a doubt. But is the Ruchazie Pantry sustainable in the long term?

“We think it is,” say Councillor Morgan and Burns in unison. Simple elements such as a small front-of-store and a flexible back-of-store help drive down operating costs, and the membership model of the Pantry will be able to support the shop given the immediate need. “We’re not naïve to think they’re going to be 100% sustainable, there’s always going to be a degree of grant income or local authority support, but the early signs are that long-term business models look fairly buoyant,” says Burns. And this is a clear message to other cities considering a pantry model.

Once you’ve got the supply [of surplus food], the rest of it is easy.
— Jim Burns, FareShare Glasgow & West of Scotland

Food for thought

For Burns, the key for other cities looking to replicate the Pantry model is the supply of food: “It’s about engaging where the surplus is and turning the tap of surplus food on. Once you’ve got the supply, the rest of it is easy.” This is despite a situation in the UK that is less than optimal when it comes to uneaten food. “We have to get better at how we use our surplus,” says Burns, pointing out that the UK’s approach to surplus is not as developed as other European countries, such as France. Being able to divert surplus food towards human consumption rather than landfill or animal feed will “help the pantry model”, he adds.

Glasgow is a city that sees potential for food to solve a host of social problems, and early investments like the Pantry system seem to be paying off. What’s more, public consultation on the Glasgow City Food Plan, co-designed with the Glasgow Food Policy Partnership, closed in December, which will hopefully bring in local knowledge and expertise to the council’s efforts to transform Glasgow’s food system.

But for Councillor Morgan, the Pantry’s biggest impact has been on her community. “Before, when I used to have meetings with constituents, hardly anyone used to come. But now when I’m in the Pantry, people say to me, ‘can I just have a wee word with you?’ They don’t want to go anywhere formal; it’s about getting to know your community. It just shows you that the community feels more comfortable to come and speak to a politician when the space is theirs.”

The City of Glasgow has been working with global partners to develop a Declaration on Food and Climate, launched on 14 December 2020. Glasgow encourages local and city governments around the world to sign up to this declaration in the run-up to the COP26 climate summit. The Eurocities WG Food is currently working on this initiative. If you would also like to join, please contact Louise Coffineau or Anja De Cunto.

Glasgow will be presenting its food aid strategy at the upcoming Eurocities WG Food on March 5. More is information available here.