When Rita Lewis ran an initial five-week project back in 2016 to set up a food club for the local community, she possibly never imagined how successful The Port Grocery would be.
The Port Grocery, which is based at Trinity Church in Ellesmere Port, aims to address both food waste and food poverty by providing affordable options.
It is open to all in the community and there is no eligibility criteria, meaning anyone can benefit from the high-quality, low-cost food available.
People pay £5 per week in practical terms and receive between £16 and £20 worth of food, including a range of frozen and fresh meat, dried and canned food and fruit and vegetables.
Cheshire West Voluntary Action (CWVA), in partnership with Cheshire West and Chester Council, is running a Year of Volunteering campaign, aiming to raise the profile of volunteering and increase the number of opportunities available across the borough. CWVA’s volunteer-matching website helps people find the right opportunity for them and each month during the campaign will focus on a different theme.
With January themed Poverty Action Month, the work The Port Grocery carries out is particularly important during this time.
“Every person in the room is a volunteer,” Rita said as she helped prepare the hall at Trinity Church for 250 people ahead of the annual Christmas dinner, which saw The Port Grocery’s one millionth meal served.
“I started this three years ago and we had five weeks’ worth of food from Marks & Spencer to give to the local community.
“We asked the community what it wanted and, once we had finished the first five weeks, my daughter told me people were talking online about why it was not carrying on.
“We spoke to Marks & Spencer and it told us that the project was not just for five weeks. It was permanent as Marks & Spencer wanted to give food to charity rather than putting it in the bin.
“A lot of different food companies in the local area donate food now and we have around 200 collections each week, starting at 8am and finishing at 11pm most days.
“Some people say they do not want the humility of going to a foodbank so this can subsidise it by offering affordable food for people.
“It is not all about people being on benefits and perhaps needing support as we also stop around six tonnes of food per week going to landfill sites.”
The Port Grocery currently has around 55 people volunteering regularly, with around an extra 35 registered volunteers.
The reason they volunteer their time can vary between each person, according to Rita.
She said: “Probably 80 per cent of our volunteers already work and come here to fill a gap when they are perhaps struggling financially.
“Rather than taking out a loan and going out, they come here to volunteer their time.
“We need to ask for support sometimes and, for some reason, we have stopped asking as people can often become isolated with social media.
“We have had to ask people at The Port Grocery itself. We needed support getting more than 40 children across to a Christmas party, but about four or five coach companies got in touch to say they were happy to take them.
“You find there is still a lot of good will out there in the community.”
Not only has The Port Grocery provided plenty of volunteering opportunities, but it has also supported people into paid employment.
“We have helped 23 people into paid jobs,” Rita added.
“It means we often lose great volunteers, but that does not matter as it is important we give people a place to come and it is fantastic when it helps them develop.
“It does make you really proud to see the amount of different people we support here.”
If you would like to get involved with the Year of Volunteering campaign and offer volunteering opportunities, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Take a look at the latest volunteering opportunities at: volunteerwestcheshire.org.uk.