Every weekday afternoon for the past few months, there’s been a quiet revolution going on in the Wickham Centre.
Under the umbrella of the Real Junk Food Project, Sue Cooper has been working hard convincing supermarkets to let her take the produce that they would otherwise simply throw away.
And that, in a roundabout way, is how she ended up with a delivery of 3,840 tins of spaghetti from One Stop that had been languishing in a warehouse.
‘They delivered it to the community centre on a great big lorry,’ she says with a laugh.
‘It was so funny to watch.
‘But you come to us and you can take a can and a loaf of bread and you’ve got a decent feed.’
Sue, from Knowle, first heard about the nationwide Real Junk Food Project after leaving her last job and was looking around for something to volunteer at. Looking at a community page online, she found a cafe running through the scheme in Gosport.
‘I wanted to do something that was more community-based and something closer to home, so I thought ‘‘there’s nothing much goes on in Wickham’’.’
Although Sue started the Wickham project as a partner of the RJFP, she is looking to cut ties with them and establish it as a community interest company which will enable her to start applying for funding.
‘I’m moving away from what they do – we don’t operate as a cafe, I don’t make any meals to sell or anything like that. I’ve started getting things now from B&Q – plants have an expiry date and I’ve had a load of paint from them.
‘It’s not about spending money, it’s about giving people somewhere they can come along to have a chat, have a cup of tea and see what we’ve got in today.
‘It’s more of a barter system. People can swap things if they want, or they can offer their skills – I’ve got a man building a website for us for free – even if it’s just helping sweep the floor when we tidy up or loading up the van for me on a run.
‘Any money I do get given goes back into running the van.
‘We had one woman print up a big leaflet with all her soup recipes from over the years on it. She printed them up and stapled them together and brought them in – they went down really well.’
With branches of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer and Co-Op all on board, the amount of food they now pick up is staggering – trays of bread, piles of fruit and veg and much more.
But she is keen to stress that this is not a food bank – it is open to everyone.
‘There is still that stigma and I run up against it all the time. Every day I get asked ‘‘are you a food bank?’’ It can be quite difficult, but I explain that we’re not and that anyone can come in. And you can come in every day – it’s not like a food bank, you don’t need to be referred by anyone to come here.
‘It doesn’t matter if you have money or not, if this isn’t taken it’s going to go in the bin.
‘People are starting to get the hang of it in Wickham now, they’re more relaxed about it and understand what I’m trying to do.’
Sue has big plans for the not-for-profit project. The 50-year-old has already had interest in setting up other similar schemes in Hampshire, and will use her contacts to help them get off the ground.
They’ve also been extending the bartering idea – last week they held a clothes swap.
‘That’s why I’m setting up as a CIC, so I can start accessing other funding to help me spread this to other places. It’s not “mine”, it’s not “yours”, it’s for everybody.
‘Come along and if you like what you see it’s possible to start one yourself.’
When the doors open at 2pm there are often people waiting patiently outside to see what bounty the day has brought.
Kelly Ryder, 39, of Gwynn Way in Wickham comes often. ‘It’s nice to get you out of the house, I like to come and have a chat and a cup of tea.
‘Sometimes it’s quite shocking how much stuff has been given.
‘There’s often a lot of bread, but it’s nice to see people take it or otherwise it would just go to waste. My kids love the cookies when they’re in.’
Jane Philliben is from nearby Soberton Heath, and she came across the scheme when looking to advertise her dog-boarding business.
‘Wickham is my nearest local shopping area so I’m down here quite often.
‘This is fabulous, and I’ve made all of these lovely new friends as well. And it’s wonderful if it stops this food going to landfill. I pop in most days because what’s here changes every day.’
And Sarah Roberts, who first came along with her friend Kelly, is now one of Sue’s regular volunteers, deputising for when she needs to be elsewhere.
‘One day I asked if I could help unpack,’ says the 47-year-old from Wickham, ‘and it’s gone from there. For about the past month I’ve started doing pick-ups as well.
‘We have people come along from all over now – Waterlooville, Bishop’s Waltham and some from Portsmouth. We had someone from Chichester who saw it on Facebook and wanted to come and check it out for themselves.’
‘It’s definitely growing, it’s much bigger than when we first started coming,’ adds Kelly.
Sue says: ‘I’m so grateful to the centre for letting me set up here every day for free. Even when it’s busy they’ll find somewhere for us. I started this from my front room last November, so they’ve been invaluable as it’s taken off.’
The scheme is at the Wickham Centre in Mill Lane, Wickham, Monday to Friday, 2pm to 5pm.
For more information search for ‘The Real Junk Food Project Meon Valley’ on Facebook.
Sue Cooper has grand plans for the project.
She has started getting more involved with other community schemes and travelling around Hampshire to spread the word about what she is doing to people who could benefit from it.
And as a resident in a Radian housing scheme she has been able to get on its Grow Your Own Way training course for people setting up a small business.
‘I don’t want to turn this into a business as such, but it is useful to learn the skills so I can put it on a more business-like footing.
‘We can take this wherever we want. If we want to invite someone like the Citizen’s Advice Bureau one month to talk to the people who come along, we can do that.
‘It’s about helping people in the community.
‘I’m an opportunist, so I will take advantage of anything that comes my way to help make this grow.’