We’ve been incredibly impressed with the way so many Co-ops and Community businesses have managed through the Covid-19 situation and lockdown. The commitment to serving their communities and the resilience and ingenuity they have shown has been amazing!
We’ve spoken to a number of our clients about how they have managed – here we share the story of Veg Box People after speaking to Helen Woodcock.
What was your immediate challenge?
I think the immediate challenge for us was that a lot of our collection points shut overnight, as they were restaurants and universities, meaning we simply couldn’t distribute food as normal. Plus we needed to move units, which became more vital as we needed extra space to distance during packing. Also, a number of our customers stopped being able to collect their veg as they were isolating or were keyworkers, who just couldn’t get to the collection point.
At the same time, interest went up from 350 bags a week to almost double that. So it was tricky – we had lots to juggle.
What did you do?
We had to set up a waiting list as we just had so much to sort out, keeping the team safe, getting veg to all our existing customers and looking for new collection points, etc. People were great – pubs that had outside space for example, let us go and set up there. Other places, like Bridge 5 Mill, who had to shut their own business opened up just for the veg collections and volunteered to staff it themselves.
We also set up two packing teams that never met, so that if one group was affected by Covid the other could continue working. Then we did a shout-out to our customers asking for two things – could they help pack, or could they take a veg bag to another customer who was isolating, or a key worker. We got a good lot of responses – it’s really amazing, people came forward and there was this real sense of community connection.
We are connected to the Kindling Trust and they also stepped in, for example covering some of the collection points and getting Stitched Up to make masks so all our packers could have them. Kindling also run social prescribing programmes, including regular growing, cooking and shared meal sessions. These had to stop, so instead they took our veg bags to all the participants, which for some customers was the only in person contact they had each week.
What support did you access?
Co-op and Community Finance offered a capital holiday but we didn’t need to take that as interest in our veg bags went up so much. It was lovely to be offered it and to feel people were looking out for us, we were really grateful for that.
We successfully applied to Farming the Future, and as a Winston Churchill Fellow, I was able to access support there too, which helped us help us to move to a bigger unit, to make sure we could pack at a safe distance. No-one went on furlough as we were classed as essential workers.
What are you doing now?
Going back into the second lockdown did mean reorganising the collection points again, but it was easier this time round and we went straight back to peak numbers again, which is great. We’ve also got a chef doing cooking sessions on Instagram where our customers can vote what he cooks and people are loving that. It’s been really good to be able to support people practically through this time, by providing good healthy organic veg as well as a friendly face at collection points. The team have been incredible, they are working really hard and have done all the way through this. They will all be ready for a break over Christmas – and it will be a really well deserved one!
What are your plans moving forward?
We’re looking to strengthen and grow our co-operative, with a future target of 1000 weekly veg bags. We work really closely with Kindling, who helped set up Veg Box People at the start. Kindling are buying a 100+ acre farm next year and we’re really looking forward to sourcing more local organic veg from them.
The huge increase in local food, not just for us but nationally, has been really noticeable during the last eight months and we think a connection with a local farm will be really important to people. Kindling Farm is community benefit society and it is very much about people owning it and being part of it. We’ve seen a lot of people re-evaluating what’s important to them in this last year, not just in terms of local food, but being able to chat to someone when you pick your food up – people are really excited to volunteer on the farm and see where their food comes from.
So, the next concrete step for us as a family of organisations, is a community shares launch in spring for Kindling Farm – so that Veg Box People can have even more lovely local organic veg for our customers to eat!