The Growth Of Port Grocery

If ever there was a story of a charity which has almost become a victim of its own success, then step forward the Port Grocery, a community food club based in Ellesmere Port.

A victim of its own success only because the extraordinary growth of the charity since its inception two years ago means it is still not quite at the level it had planned in terms of being completely sustainable.

As a result, the Steve Morgan Foundation has agreed to renew its funding for an Operations Manager for the innovative charity, as well as providing a grant to help provide a storage facility for the tonnes of food which it now collects and passes on to those who need it most.

The Port Grocery is an incredible story of just what can be achieved in such a short space of time, but first let’s return to the background.

Rita Lewis was one of the founders of the charity, which initially grew out of another charity also previously supported by the Steve Morgan Foundation – the Debt Advice Network.

“The Debt Advice Network helps people and gives advice on all things related to debt, including budgeting, welfare and benefits,” says Rita.

“We attend tribunals to help people, attend courts for eviction and repossession cases, and generally have a very good success rate.

“Judges know how we work, and if they feel they can see some light at the end of the tunnel, they will tend to delay cases so that we can work with the people concerned and put a sustainable plan in place.

“It was probably over two-and-a-half years ago now that we were sat in a meeting talking about some of the challenges of Ellesmere Port, in terms of alcoholism, teenage pregnancies and a lot of people with low skills.

“No matter what was tried and whatever money was thrown at the problems, nothing seemed to be changing.

“Someone at the meeting said he had been offered five weeks of food from Marks and Spencer, but it was too much for him to take on.

“Somebody needed to do it, so we decided that would be us, and we agreed to take them up on the offer and use it as a platform to find out what the community really wanted and needed and ask them questions.

“We were given use of Trinity Church on a Wednesday, and started delivering a free lunch, which we called the Wednesday Welcome.

“However, there is of course no such thing as a free lunch, so all we asked in return was for the people who came along to fill in a questionnaire about what they felt they really needed in the community.

“The biggest feeling that we took away was that they felt they were getting pushed from pillar to post when they needed help, from agency to agency, to the point where eventually, they would give up.

“At the end of the five weeks of food we finished up and thought that was it, but suddenly there was a lot of action on social media from people asking what was happening and saying not only had it been the only hot meal they were getting, but also the only chance to meet and see people.

“That gave us a challenge, in terms of what we could try to do to continue such an important service.”

As events transpired, the arrangement from Marks and Spencer was actually on a more permanent basis, and not just for five weeks, as the company were keen to reduce the amount of surplus food stock going to landfill.

From there the Port Grocery also started accessing food from many other sources, and all of a sudden they were receiving far more than just what was required for the Wednesday Welcome.

Once again they asked the community for feedback, and the overwhelming reaction was for one particular development:  A Community Shop.

“So the team as we were then started visiting other similar facilities across the country – Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and others – just to see what everyone else was doing with regards to social supermarkets and pay as you go community shops,” added Rita.

“There wasn’t really one which completely fitted the bill of what we wanted, so we took a little bit from each of them, and launched the Port Grocery, named as such because when people from the area say they are going into town, the say they are going to the ‘Port’.

“We set off with about 30 members, who would pay a nominal amount at the start of £4, and then receive between £16 and £20 of shopping of which the majority would be fruit and vegetables, but also fish and meat items.

“By January of last year we had 80 members, by June it was 100, and now, just over two years on, we have 480.

“We now collect from M&S, Costco, Tesco, Waitrose, KFC, Nando’s, Sandwich Express, Pret A Manger, Oliver Kaye, and others.

“We are moving about six tonnes of food every single week, and nothing goes to waste.

“If it isn’t used in the Wednesday Welcome, or distributed through the shop, we will pass it on to other community projects such as Chester Aid to the Homeless, or the local bail hostel, City Mission.

“There is a tremendous community atmosphere around the Wednesday Welcome and the shop.

“Recently, thanks to the Steve Morgan Foundation, we have also been able to build extra storage which was previously one of our biggest stumbling blocks.

“As the amount of donated food increased, and the number of suppliers increased, there was nowhere to put it, and we didn’t want to turn it down.

“With this storage, we can have big walk-in fridges and freezers and be able to safely stock even more meat and fish.

“We pick up the six tonnes of food is picked up via 128 collections every single week, and of the 480 members of the Port Grocery, there are still between 200 and 250 attending the Wednesday Welcome.

“With our increase in running costs, especially fuel with two vans on the road, and the increase in the number of collections, we raised the price of a shopping bag to £5, but didn’t receive a single complaint.

“And now, we can confidently say that in return for a fiver, they get food to the value of anything up to £25 if not more.”

As the Port Grocery has developed, there is not just food that is now available for the community.

There are items from the middle aisle of Aldi, including slippers, pyjamas, dressing gowns, DIY tools, equipment for bikes, washing up liquid, fabric conditioner, and much more, all available as a ‘bonus item’.

Jack Wolfskin, a designer outlet in Cheshire Oaks, is now also donating surplus coats, which used to be sent out to Africa but some of which are now being given to those who need them most within the local community. 

As mentioned earlier, and as a sign of the charity’s success, the funding has been needed to keep the Operations Manager in post.

“We are very grateful to the Steve Morgan Foundation not just for the additional storage but also renewing the grant for the Operations Manager,” added Rita, who was one of the keynote speakers at the first ever Steve Morgan Foundation conference staged in October.

“We wrote a business plan at the start, and we’re not far off it, but we didn’t quite envisage just how it would all take off or that we would need the storage space and indeed more staff.

“It has been so successful that we have been stretched, but having funding for an Operations Manager for another year just gives us some more breathing space.

“We have been 24-7 over the last two years, and that is how we want it, because we don’t want to turn anything down which can be passed on to the local community.”

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