Spark Centre, BurntwoodAbout 5 years ago, Steph O’ Shea (now Family Support Worker) started as a volunteer at Spark Centre, Burntwood.
Here she set up an after-school club where families – many of whom were single parents and from low-income households – could take part in activities and receive a hot meal. With a limited budget and very little funding available, Steph signed up to start receiving food from FareShare Midlands and soon realised this membership was not only meeting her needs at Spark, but exceeding them.
As a result, a Spark Community Reception Area was opened, where families and groups using the Centre can access chilled, ambient and frozen food in times of need. Throughout the summer period the team run open fun days, linking with the council and local churches and providing refreshment stands. Last year, queues of people reached round the car park and down the road for access to these meals. These events have encouraged and upskilled even more volunteers, who help with the cooking and food preparation, and led to the team starting ad-hoc food-and-fun clubs and cookery classes with the children.
FareShare Midlands food, when surplus from The Community Store, is taken to the Spark Centre. Some is used as emergency packages for families who find themselves in urgent need, some is available to families, and the rest is used in the kitchen to provide snacks for the children.
“We have a lot of fruit in – with a wide variety. Recently we had plums, which the children really liked – but they weren’t so sure about the lychees!”
Even the food which is no longer edible doesn’t go to waste. Instead, children take it into the garden play area and pretend to cook with it.
Steph and Spark volunteers have always enjoyed cooking meals for the children, parents and grandparents at the after-school clubs. They use seasonal produce and national food days to add variety to their meals, and encourage the children to adopt healthy eating behaviours and try new things. A lot of parents say their children are “fussy” when they first come to the club, but over time, they become much more open to trying different foods.
“The cooked meals bring the children together, bring the parents together, and get people talking. It builds relationships and you see the families thrive. Especially now, when some parents are going without. At least we know that whilst they’re with us, they’re getting fed – and whatever we have as surplus, they go away with.”
Burntwood Be A Friend
At Burntwood Be A Friend people are provided with healthy food, and receive information on how to access support for the root causes of their problems. Burntwood Be A Friend started partnering with many other local organisations offering a wide range of advice and support. They review each member’s individual situation and what problems they need help with. The member is then introduced to the appropriate organisation to access services for help with debt advice, mental health issues, drug and addiction support, or opportunities for training or volunteering.
Burntwood Be A Friend piloted this approach for 6 months and noticed it relieved the pressures on the food bank, and provided an essential support for those who had been too ashamed to seek help before. Even those who had been reliant on the food bank every week previously, found that with Burntwood Be A Friend they were able to make progress and get back on a firmer footing.
“We took a chance on securing the current premises and setting up Burntwood Be A Friend as a charity. By people accessing the Community Store, it pays for the FareShare membership and the food that we receive. Whatever is left over is put in the Spark Centre Community Reception Area, so it feeds the families that access the groups. This means that people shopping at the Community Store isn’t just about helping the planet and the environment, it isn’t just about accessing healthy food, it’s also about helping others in the community. There is a no waste rule, where if the food isn’t sold, we will cook it, freeze it, compost it, and the volunteers give out recipe cards. The food literally feeds into everything else that the charity does.”
The Community Store
“Food is a magnet. It brings people together, it motivates our volunteers, it helps the groups, and learning about food cooking and preparation upskills people and encourages them to eat better. We’ve had people say to us that since they’ve become a member they’ve lost weight, they’ve tried food that they would never normally be able to afford. People accessing the Store enables them to try new foods.”
The Store builds relationships for the volunteers too. Some are lonely, bereaved, or may not have worked for a while. People are welcomed from lots of backgrounds, including those who couldn’t speak much English, but now they can and volunteer or work at Spark or Burntwood Be A Friend. Thereare many activities for people to get involved with, such as wellbing walks, community gardening and social events. Anyone can come in, and everyone’s treated as an equal.
Membership to the store is £3 a year, plus £5 or £10 per package. Before the Store opens to the public, staff from Spark visit to get fruit, veg and snacks for the groups. There is a soup maker in the Store and people can pop in and get soup and a roll for a 50p donation. Members can ‘pay it forward’ and buy “Kindness Voucher” credits for others to redeem if they are desperate for food.
“Without the food we wouldn’t operate, we would quite literally fold. A lot of local people aren’t on social media, especially those who are a bit older. So, they wouldn’t have known about our wellbeing walks or our community garden if they weren’t coming here to get some support with groceries. We wouldn’t have as many volunteers if they didn’t come here to access the food. Without the food, there is no Burntwood Be A Friend at all. There would be a lot more poverty. We wouldn’t be a strong community like we are.”
As with Burntwood Be A Friend, The Store acts as a Community Hub and enables members to access a wide range of additional support and services.
- There is a part-time mental health recovery worker who delivers mental health drop-in sessions.
- BBAF arrange for organisations like South Staffs water to come in and advise people how to get on the Assure Tariff.
- Better Way Recovery hold drop-ins not just for people struggling with addiction, but for their families too.
- BBAF have developed links with LEAP Energy, so they are able to arrange grants for people for white goods, and home visits to advise people where they can make savings on gas and electricity.
- People can get free tools to help them quit smoking, free passes to the local leisure centres for a class once a week – and access to free Slimming World and Weight Watchers classes.
- BBAF and Spark also help people apply for the current household support fund.
“So many different people use the Store – unemployed people, workers, single people, families, international families and refugees, and social workers access food for people in emergency accommodation.”
Cost of Living Crisis
There are lots of challenges with the Cost-of-Living Crisis, alongside current shortages of surplus food. They have seen a massive increase in people accessing the provision. The Store is struggling with volunteer shortages and there are also massive financial challenges. Burntwood Be A Friend is a non-profit charity - and the team is doing everything they can to keep going – organising fundraisers and raffles, asking local businesses and people for support.
“I’ve noticed we have had quite a lot of people accessing the service with special dietary needs that they can’t afford. We had a woman join a few months ago who had been quite violently ill, because she’d been really struggling with finances, and having to eat foods that are a trigger to her, and make her ill, because she couldn’t afford specialist foods”.
“I just think everything is so uncertain at the moment. I’m very worried that if something isn’t done to help organisations and charities like us, very soon that they’re going to go under. And then what happens to all these families? What happens to the volunteers? I’ve grown this from the heart, this is personal. I’ve put love, sweat and tears into this and I’m really worried that in 6 months’ time we may have to close. If our electric bill is what it is now – and it’s due to rise soon – what do we do? Where do we find that money?”
“When we first set up the store we had funding from the National Lottery, the Community Fund. We were set a challenge to work with 40 families within 12 months. Last year we signed up 654. Some households have 1 person – some have 10. The true scale of people just accessing the Community Store is massive, never mind the families who access the food provisions at Spark. It’s phenomenal”.
Steph can personally demonstrate the impact of regular access to healthy food.
"I have lost 11 stone since accessing Spark. When I first started accessing Spark I was 22 stone, I couldn’t get on the floor or tie my shoelaces and that was because I couldn’t afford to access fruit and veg. I knew what to do, I just genuinely couldn’t afford it. Growing up I didn’t have access to fresh produce, it was all cheap and cheerful processed food. So this is why I set up the children’s group. As I was accessing the food from FareShare my diet was improving, I was feeling better about myself, getting more active. I wanted to set something up for my daughter and other children aged 4-8 to stay with their parents and access activities and have a hot meal. I have been able to demonstrate how we can live better and feel better”.
“We do what we do because food shouldn't be a luxury, if we are running on empty then how can we be the best version of ourselves? How can children learn to the best of their ability, be healthy and grow without essential nourishment?”
Paul, volunteer, is 62 years old. After travelling the world in the air force, he settled back in Burntwood and was introduced to the store by his partner, Shelly.
“Volunteering here holds a dear part of my heart, because it’s Burntwood-based. I enjoy the Shop because it’s social, it’s interactive. It’s doing two good purposes - we’re saving things from going into landfill and general waste. We’re also helping to feed people with good produce, at a reasonable price, at a time when they most need it. The team is excellent, very social, very welcoming. We get repeat customers, so we build up a relationship with them, and we meet new people from different backgrounds.”
Find out more about Burntwood Be A Friend: https://burntwoodbeafriend.org.uk/
Find out more about Spark Centre: http://www.sparkburntwood.co.uk/
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