BrightStore – ‘There is another way’

Like everyone else, Covid has had a practical impact on my daily life. The thought of helping set up and run an affordable food scheme was probably the furthest thing from my mind this time last year. I probably didn’t even know what one was. In fact, I definitely didn’t.

So when a small group of us, connected through the Brighton Mutual Aid network and food volunteering during the first wave of the pandemic discussed the idea of BrightStore back in September 2020, I genuinely had no idea whether we would still be around a month later let alone six months later with two stores and 90 members, feeding over 200 people every week.

We wanted to create an affordable food scheme that gave everyone experiencing food inequality access to affordable, local and quality food. Aligned to this was a shared desire to make food – and the way people source it – fairer and more environmentally sustainable (everything at BrightStore comes from high quality surplus, donated food including locally sourced food from Sussex farmers). A commitment to the idea of a solidarity membership scheme, based on a ‘pay what you can afford’ principle, with those that could pay more supporting neighbours who couldn’t was also important.

Within a few weeks, BrightStore had opened its doors at Hollingdean Community Centre. We are a social grocery store which offers our members a weekly shop at a fraction of what it would normally cost and in a social, positive, community setting. In return for this, members help run the store with the ultimate aim of taking over the running of it. We were getting pretty close to achieving that until the most recent lockdown!

Reducing the number of members volunteering has been one of the consequences of operating during lockdown along with moving our stores outside and having to provide collection and delivery services of mostly pre-packed shopping for our members. Despite these challenges, we have successfully opened up a second store in Hove and become more embedded in the communities we work in.

So what of the future for BrightStore and affordable food schemes like ours? Whilst we emerged out of the pandemic, we are not defined by it. There was a need for and a growing legion of projects like BrightStore before Covid – 19, and if anything the pandemic has highlighted the need for our food systems to be more community-led, resilient and sustainable.

We are lucky to be part of an incredible network of organisations across the city (led by Brighton & Hove Food Partnership). We all support and learn from each other and we also get great support from local businesses. All of this bodes well.

On a personal level, I’ve seen the power that food can have in bringing people and communities together in a positive, social and supportive way. At a time when so many of us have been isolated, people have made connections with their neighbours through BrightStore and supported each other in a range of ways.

This has been anything from people who can afford to pay a bit more for their weekly shop supporting a neighbour who is struggling, to people delivering shopping to those in their community who are shielding or isolating, and people sharing recipe ideas for vegetables in their BrightStore shop which they are trying for the first time. Supermarkets may do many things but they don’t do that and it’s all led to an increasing feeling that there is another way to do this.

BrightStore, and other schemes like it, have to be part of a long term plan to re-imagine how our food systems operate and not just something that eventually fades away with the pandemic.

Being here for the long haul however means looking at the way such schemes operate and alternatives to the voluntary model of how they are run. Relying solely on volunteers does not seem sustainable.

On this point, I was struck by a group discussion at a recent online Fair Food Forum event I attended. In our break-out group on affordable food schemes, the conversation inevitably turned to their future. Someone suggested that greater recognition was needed about the vital role food will have in making society fairer and more sustainable in future. He added that there was a need to think about the community food sector and those that work in it as an integral part of the public sector. The question was posed, ‘Why shouldn’t those working in community food have the same status as teachers or those working in the NHS?’

Now that really does feel like food for thought.

To find out more about BrightStore visit www.brightstore.org

If you, or are anyone you know, could benefit from what BrightStore offers please contact info@brightstore.org or call 07306 655 432.

Joel is a volunteer at BrightStore, one of several affordable food schemes in the city. Find one in your area.

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