The view from: Stockport Homes
Our blog series, The View From, explores how housing associations have been responding to the Covid-19 crisis. In this blog, Tanya King, Customer Engagement and Inclusion Manager at Stockport Homes, discusses their work with local food pantries, new partnerships and next steps.
In terms of project work, the main impact of Covid-19 has been on our network of local pantries, which are community food stores. These operate on membership arrangements where people pay £3.50 a week to access up to 10 items of food. The whole premise of the pantry is that it offers dignity and choice, and is not a food bank. They’re located in communities where we have the most stock, which tend to be in deprived areas.
Normally people come to our five food stores every week to pick up food, but over the lockdown period we’ve had to completely change their format. Since many members of the pantries haven’t been able to collect food in person, we’re been operating a home delivery service for pantry members and other vulnerable households amongst our tenants. We’ve managed to keep two of our pantries open, but with pre-packed bags and social distancing for collections. In recent weeks, we’ve re-opened a third pantry and are planning to use a delivery van to provide pre-packed bags to the remaining two areas for now.
Stockport Council also commissioned us to deal with any referrals they’ve had through their Covid helpline. Anyone presenting with an immediate need for food would be directed to Stockport Homes. Consequently, need for the service has massively increased and we’ve been delivering hundreds and hundreds of food bags each week.
At one point we were delivering to local school children too, where the family were having issues with school meals vouchers and have delivered to a cohort of around 30 particularly vulnerable looked after children throughout.
Local foodbanks have now taken over the role of emergency food provision, as they are confident they have sufficient resources in terms of volunteers and food supply. As we begin to move out of crisis mode into recovery, our focus is back on supplying our pantry members and encouraging new members to join as a more long-term, sustainable option.
Our digital offer has also had to change. We fund a local social enterprise called Start Point who are great at engaging people with no interest in digital and persuading them, particularly older people, of the reasons to go online.
During lockdown, Start Point have managed to move all of their learners, who are mostly over 55s, onto weekly Zoom sessions. 16 local digital champions do either one-to-one support or group support every week. Most of the training is for people who want to learn how to do online shopping, banking, and give them the basic functional skills to keep them safe online. We will build on this shift to reach more customers with digital support in future, from their homes as well as local drop in sessions when they can safely restart.
One huge benefit of this period has been the increased partnership working. Within our own organisation, internal communications and relationships have really developed. Teams from across the organisation have helped out where they were needed, especially with the pantries.
In the first few weeks many of the operatives had no work, so they acted as packers and delivery drivers for our pantries. Before lockdown, some people didn’t even know the pantries existed, particularly if they were doing a trade job, so there’s definitely more appreciation for the work that we do now and some great new working relationships.
Staff from other parts of the business have also helped out with the welfare calls, which have been a massive operation. We had thousands of residents to contact, so calls were allocated out to everyone who had the capacity. People in our organisation who might not have a massive amount of contact with customers have been on the phone to people who, in some cases, needed a lot of support. This has really heightened the appreciation amongst all teams of what each other does and been very rewarding for both staff and customers. This is something we are seeking to embed in our regular work, rather than a one off project.
Our relationship with the Council has been enhanced during lockdown since we worked really closely with them on an integrated food offer. Our relationships with third sector organisations have been really positive, too. Local Covid groups who mobilised really fast have linked in with us, and our relationships with local foodbanks are better than ever, not to mention local groups who have worked with our Funding Officer to access support.
Our next steps are laid out in our recovery and transformation plan, which is well underway in terms of delivery. We’re trying to get back to business as usual as soon and as safely as we can. Where that’s not possible, we’re looking at offering alternatives.
We’ve also been co-ordinating a survey across all the different service areas, speaking to customers and getting their feedback on the services that we delivered differently during lockdown. For example, where people feel that they’re quite happy to be rung instead of seen in person, it will enable us to free up staff resources to then focus on the most vulnerable households who do need face-to-face contact. Evaluating how necessary home visits are for some services will, I think, be a permanent change where customers are happy with telephone or digital contact.
We’ve learnt a lot during this period. Now is the time to work with our customers to develop more effective services to benefit everyone.
To find out more about pantries in your area, please visit the Your Local Pantry website.