“The phone’s started ringing off the hook with people wanting help with food.” Clair McGregor is explaining the moment she decided to set up the Angel Trust’s latest community venture amid a cost-of-living crisis.

The new foodbank and pantry hub is one of thousands of similar initiatives described as a ‘lifesaver’ by visitors as it deals with the deepening economic crisis to help people feed their families and provide financial security.

As prices and energy bills continue to rise, The Northern Echo has spent days on the frontline of Britain’s cost-of-living crisis and listened to those struggling to survive, and the people helping them, amid a time when ever-increasing numbers of people will not be able to afford to eat and heat their homes this winter.

It heard of families seeing their bills skyrocket despite cutting down on their food supplies and turning off key utilities to save money.

Among those travelling to the Bishop Auckland facility were a teacher, an NHS nurse, and school supervisors. The uncomfortable reality now however, Clair says, is that increasing numbers of working people are now visiting as they struggle to cope with the rising costs.

The Northern Echo: The pantry combines fresh fruit and vegetables with surplus food stock from local shopsThe pantry combines fresh fruit and vegetables with surplus food stock from local shops

Read more: People crying in foodbank queues after being left with barely £20 a week

Inside the charity’s building on Kingsway, a room has been transformed into a farm-shop-style pantry which collects surplus food from local supermarkets and businesses and sells it at a reduced cost for people struggling to pay the increasing prices at other stores.

Its volunteers have also received accreditation from the Trussell Trust to act as a foodbank for two days a week to provide benefit support, CV writing, and mental health and debt management classes alongside food parcels.

Clair arrived at 6am on Friday morning to start preparing for the day ahead. The pantry, which has been dubbed the ‘flagship foodbank’, is only advertised as being open for four hours but its popularity since opening earlier this month has seen volunteers working around the clock to collect stock.

“It’s just gone mad,” she said, “we’ve created a beast.”

The Northern Echo: People turn up to queue outside the pantry/ foodbank up to half an hour before opening timePeople turn up to queue outside the pantry/ foodbank up to half an hour before opening time

Although the doors don’t officially open until 10am people turn up to queue from 9:30am to ensure they don’t leave empty-handed. Among the dozens of shoppers when The Northern Echo visited many were first timers who paid £5 to become a member and will then pay an extra £5 weekly for a full shop.

Mother-of-two Amanda Hill says it took her a while to pluck up the courage to visit the pantry but is now singing it praises.

She said: “With energy bills and food, petrol and bus fares all rising it’s a struggle. Places like this are a lifesaver.”

Amanda, 35, works as a school’s lunchtime supervisor but is currently looking after her two children during the six-week summer holidays, while continuing to worry about rising costs.

“I’ve got to please both of my children, and everything costs a fortune these days. By the time I’ve paid off all my bills I’ve got nothing left,” she added.

Her nine-year-old son Stevie-Jay has also taken a shine to the trust’s new facility and particularly enjoys the meal kits, including recipe instructions, prepared by the volunteers.

“If it wasn’t for the girls here, god knows what we would be doing now,” Amanda says of the charity’s work. “We’re only in the third week of the holidays and a lot of families are struggling. People need to come down and see it because it’s really helpful. I wonder why it took me so long to come down in the first place.”

The Northern Echo: Stevie-jay, 9, with mother Amanda Hill at Angel Trust's pantry in Bishop AucklandStevie-jay, 9, with mother Amanda Hill at Angel Trust's pantry in Bishop Auckland

Hannah Pierson, a teacher, says she has seen the impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on children in deprived areas. She said: “There is such a struggle with people having cold showers, I hear that at school, and kids are coming in having not eaten since the night before.

“Hopefully my £5 will help the charity provide more help – it’s a no-brainer really.”

An NHS nurse told of working excessive hours while also caring for a family-of-five, including a disabled daughter. The family rely on tax credits for a top-up to their incomes but have been hit by cuts of over £600 a month.

“I can’t sustain that and I need to make cutbacks where I can,” she said.

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Kay Constable says the pantry’s high-value branded items at reduced rates helps keep her spending down, but despite cutting down on her energy usage she continues to see her bills rise.

“I was putting £20 a week on my meters and now I’m putting £60-70 on,” the local play group volunteer said. “The heating isn’t even on; it’s just being spent on basic everyday things. Even using the washing machine is terrible.”

Many visitors on Friday tell of their friendships with the volunteers but some shoppers have come down after hearing about the new initiative through word-of-mouth or on social media.

And despite the intense hours and emotional impact the work is having on Clair McGregor’s life, she admits she wouldn’t change her job for the world.

Carole Readshaw, another shopper to have benefited from the new pantry, says of Clair: “She always wants to help people and care for them, the whole staff are amazing.”

The Northern Echo: Clair McGregor (right) with volunteers at the pantry Clair McGregor (right) with volunteers at the pantry

But the decision to open wasn’t out of choice. The Angel Trust adapted during the Covid pandemic and delivered food parcels in the community and have maintained their links with food suppliers ever since. A new cookery school is hoped to be built by December.

Clair explains: “A lot of people are saying it’s so friendly. We didn’t want to be somewhere that just put food trays out. We want to get to the root of the problem and find out what’s going on, and how we can help.

“We hope we can get everyone behind us – it can’t drop off. I just hope that the community continues to get behind us and helps us with surplus food.

“There’s no shame in coming in at all, it’s open for everybody.”

The Northern Echo: Meal kits can be purchased for £2Meal kits can be purchased for £2

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