And it rang and it rang and it kept on ringing.
In the panic of lockdown, we watched the news of the supermarket shelves being emptied, in tears for the exhausted nurse being faced with empty shelves after a 48-hour shift. We watched the news with everyone else, with growing unease and fright by what was unrolling.
In the early days of the virus, we had been chatting in our weekly team meeting about whether we would need to close-up, how we would cope with a few more customers each week and whether we could fit more orders in our van and continued hopes for Easter holidays and our one Friday delivery day of the year where we always take off – Good Friday.
Then everything happened so fast. In the panic of not being able to get a supermarket slot, people quickly turned to local food (great!) options and our website saw more traffic than ever before!
Our open-source online shop website provided by the brilliant Open Food Network (OFN) started struggling to cope – slowing down to a snail’s pace and then to a halt until we had crashed the UK’s food hubs, (web developer gets on the phone to OFN Chief Executive asking her to tell the Tamar Valley to calm down!) and the phone started ringing.
Desperate people, ill people and panicked people, with us trying not to be ruffled by the calls and upset ourselves by the tone and worry of folk in our community not being able to get food, now under a full lockdown. Older folk ringing asking for orders but not knowing how to use the internet, confused by our order deadlines and delivery days. We took orders for our usual 5 days and ended up with over 250 orders, a 500% increase on February’s orders, and our turnover was more in one week than for the whole of December! We felt completely daunted, absolutely rotten, guilty and awful that we couldn’t help everyone who needed food from us that week.
And then wonderful things started to happen – Sara met Andy and Rachel Partridge in Callington who asked how things were. Nearly in tears Sara tells the story of the phones not stopping, people desperate for an order and our not really knowing how we might do it apart from it was the most important thing we can be doing right now and of course we’d manage it! Rachel and Andy’s simple “We’ll help” was such a boost. Then more friends started offering help whenever, whatever time. Callington Town Council, our landlord said “what can we do?” and said they would do our Callington town deliveries and gave us the town council chamber to pick out orders. Lois Horsham sat manning the phones for 2 days, calling people to say that we weren’t entirely sure what time they would be receiving their orders on Friday evening…or Saturday morning but it would be with them, Calstock Parish Council offered help, the Tamar Valley AONB offered desk help and our Board of Directors really stepped up to the challenge (Jenny actually counted her steps on delivery day and it was 26,230 just picking orders!) packing veg bags, doing deliveries and keeping the kettle on for us!
After two days of deliveries, we re-grouped on Monday morning knowing that we would have some difficult decisions to make around logistics and managing numbers as we were struggling with the website, getting enough disposable gloves and hand sanitiser, working safely in a small space and even just getting enough boxes and bags to pack all of the orders. One of the hardest things was organising customers and making the difficult decision to create a priority list for customers and limiting the number we could cope with to be able to deliver them all in one day and get food to those most in need. Following government guidelines as to who was classed as vulnerable, those shielding and our most committed customers we started having a few hours each week for those customers to order first and then the website would open to everyone. One week we were only able to open for order for 15 minutes before we reached capacity.
Our inboxes kept filling with messages of support, people saying that they looked forward to their Friday delivery so much, and that it was the best day of the week for them; bottles of wine were left on doorsteps, one customer made us all a facemask each. We had pictures, messages left on boxes – It was truly heart-warming and also sobering when people said they were feeling lonely and we were the thing they looked forward to most now.
Our wonderful band of volunteers dutifully turned out each week to help with deliveries, to keep the food hub wheels rolling, even the Plymouth Raider’s basketball team have been helping with deliveries since lock down and brought a smile to people’s doors! (https://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/sport/plymouth-raiders-bit-help-amid-3975426) We really wouldn’t have been able to reach everyone without the kindness of friends, and neighbours and the strength of community spirit.
We were also fortunate to be part of a project with Callington Town Council and Cornwall Community Foundation to supply fruit bags to school children who were still at school during lock down as their parents and guardians were key workers and also children who are in receipt of the pupil premium. These fruit bags included local fruits where possible including local varieties of cherries, fresh strawberries and blueberries and also a bottle of our own apple juice which were delivered to the schools every fortnight to students. One parent said: “Being self-employed, all my work stopped really suddenly (as a result of Covid-19) and I really struggled. These bags have been so good, I always made sure the kids are fed but I’ve been pretty much living on your strawberries and potatoes.”
Packing so many orders in our three spaces was becoming really difficult and inefficient so we started looking around at larger premises around Callington – rather urgently! Writing now in July, we now have an industrial unit in Kelly Bray that we have recently moved into giving us space for growth and to work safely around each other being able to socially distance.
After our server crash on the website, developers all over the world started working on improving the Open Food Network’s performance and so now we have a really quick shopping platform with new features being added every week. What these last few months have shown is that our local food system in the Tamar Valley and our community of producers have shown great resilience in such difficult times. None of our local producers increased their prices to take advantage of the situation, we saw no inflated prices or products being offered under the guises of amazing special offers. What we have seen is a tremendous sense of spirit, care for others and a hopefully bright future for local food in the Tamar Valley.