To mark World Hunger Day, we spoke to Dianne Williams, CEO of Moat House Community Trust in Coventry. Moat House do incredible work tackling food poverty and its multiple causes. Their innovative “Grub Hub” model is a shining example of the difference that can be made when communities are listened to, services are built around these needs, and cross-sector collaboration is prioritised.
The community are tired of people parachuting in and telling people what’s good for them. They want to be in charge of their own destiny."

Getting to know Moat House

Moat House Community Trust (MHCT) is based in Wood End and Henley Green, one of the most deprived areas of Coventry. Moat House emerged out of the New Deal for Communities (NDC), a government regeneration programme.  While there were some successes from the programme, Dianne and the Trustees of MHCT recognised that its weakness lay in its top-down approach to both strategy and funding. As a result, community ownership and self-sustainability have been at the very core of MHCT’s work since its inception.

As Dianne explained: “We have to be financially sound and independent. The community are tired of people parachuting in and telling people what’s good for them. They want to be in charge of their own destiny. Our board is made up of a majority of residents. There are three non-residents who were invited by the residents onto the board.

“We focus on being sustainable so we can be here to support the community, be advocates on their behalf, and shape services to meet local needs. We make a return of about £120,000 per year, which we invest back into our activities; with the community determining the activities, events, trips, etc. This [strategy] means we can be innovative, brave, and fleet of foot. We are able to turn things around immediately while the public sector are still thinking about it.”

MHCT runs a wide variety of projects, all tailored to the needs of their community. These include seniors’ activities, a community café, and the building and provision of (genuinely) affordable housing. MHCT currently own 9 houses and are seeking planning permission to build over 20 more houses in Coventry’s first community-led housing project.

The birth of Grub Hub

Food poverty has become an increasingly central part of Moat House Community Trust’s work.

In 2018, Moat House received funds from the Sugar Tax to launch a five-week holiday club for young people. This included the provision of food to all attendees. Dianne and the MHCT team were taken aback by the demand for this service and had to think on their feet to meet this need. Dianne explained: “We thought we’d get 30, but 90 turned up at 11am expecting to be fed a two-course hot meal at 12.30. This was an interesting challenge!  Luckily there is an answer – Pasta! You can bung pasta into a pan and produce a healthy meal in minutes.”

Through listening and consulting with the attendees of the Holiday Club and their seniors’ lunches, it became abundantly clear that food poverty was a key issue in their community.

“When you see people often, you develop a relationship with them, and they tell you things,” said Dianne. “We’ve had tears and had broken families. One of the things they told us very clearly is that food poverty is a massive issue. The lower your income, the bigger proportion that food takes of that. At times when prices are going up, families are under real pressure.”

“We listened to what our residents said, and we dreamed up Grub Hub.”

Grub Hub is a community pantry in which members pay a weekly contribution of £4 in return for a food bag worth £20-30. Unlike traditional foodbanks, the pantry model focusses on tackling food inequality as a chronic issue. Rather than providing handouts, this model is based around providing healthy food to their members, at an affordable price.

“Since we launched it in June 2019, the model hasn’t really changed. From the start, we listened to what people were saying; originally we were getting about 40 people per week, with around 150 members… They told us they didn’t like foodbanks because they didn’t like handouts…The residents tell us that ‘means testing’ stigmatises, so we don’t means test anything. It is about dignified community response.”

The thing about hunger is it’s often the first thing that manifests itself, but the question is, what issues sit behind that?"

The pandemic and its aftermath

When Covid hit in March 2020, many began to replicate the Grub Hub model – with support from Moat House. Just one year after the launch of Grub Hub, 13 food pantries existed across the city, covering most areas of Coventry. The majority use the same model, adjusted to meet the specific needs of the community they serve. As Dianne explained, the options available are different “in areas where there are more halal meat-eaters or vegetarians.”

In response to the pandemic, Coventry City Council and community groups across the city replicated the model to create the city-wide Coventry Food Network. In this time, many people were not able to access pantries in person. MHCT responded by pivoting their service towards distribution. Moat House working closely with local charities, Coventry City Council, and the private sector (including Jaguar Rover, Warwick University, Coventry City Football Club). They were able to develop a system that ensured food parcels reached the most vulnerable people across the city.

“We flipped the model to a delivery model. It became a real social activity,” said Dianne.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we are beginning to see some of its longer-term, societal and economic repercussions. The demand for Grub Hub is still increasing, while many of Moat House’s beneficiaries are reporting deteriorating mental health, an uptick in social issues including domestic violence, and precarious employment situations.

Dianne explained, “The thing about hunger is it’s often the first thing that manifests itself, but the question is, what issues sit behind that? People go through crises in their lives and often never recover from them: if you get into debt it can have a devastating impact on your life. We had 10 new members join Grub Hub last week. Many people are having their hours cut and finding they are worse off than when furloughed – until we get people out of their houses a lot of these things are not going to be evident.”

The recipe for success

In what is a highly challenging time for the voluntary sector, Moat House Community Trust have found themselves in a very strong position. In partnership with 10 other community organisations, they have recently submitted an application to become Coventry Community Spaces CIO, positioned to provide city wide services.

Dianne believes that financial independence, partnership working, and properly listening to local people have been three key pillars of their success. A business model based on financial independence has ensured that they are not reliant on restricted grants from funders and have not fallen into the trap of ‘mission drift”.

This has also enabled Moat House to focus on honing the skills they are good at while building long-term partnerships with organisations who are specialists in other area. “We don’t try to be everything,” Dianne said. “We are good at engagement and being a community anchor but we are not youth workers, or sports deliverers – we try to partner with people who are better at those things than we are.”

This model has also allowed MHCT to listen to its community and build services around needs – rather than having to tick boxes for funders.

“[We have] the ability to make things happen, things that the community want – not what everybody else thinks they want… the thing that makes the success here is it is local people doing it for local people. That’s a sustainable model.”

The fact that MHCT is embedded in its community means that it is perfectly placed to understand and empathise with residents’ needs, enabling a truly person-centred support and solutions.

“The big challenge for the sector is to stop being service-driven and start being person-driven,” Dianne explained. The staff and volunteers who work for MHCT are “close to the community, they are trusted by the community, they are of the community, and they’re not judgmental. As soon as anybody feels they are being judged they won’t open up to you. If you can engage them in a dignified way, they will.”

We tell everybody that they should join Locality."

Locality membership

Dianne believes that the relationships, learnings, practical support and ideas they have gained through their Locality membership have also been key to their strength and growth.

“We couldn’t have done it without you,” Dianne told us. “We had no real experience of running a community organisation – we understood commerce, working with people and customer service, but we didn’t know the sector or appreciate what the sector could achieve.”

“We went to our first Convention in a wet Manchester and were just enthused; in awe of what people were doing. We have been to every Convention since, and we tell everybody that they should join Locality and go to the Convention because you don’t know what you don’t know.

“I’m a real cynic about conferences, but the genuine passion and commitment when you meet people urges you on. The people are ordinary, they don’t seem distant or superior, they are people who genuinely roll their sleeves up.

“We took one of our resident staff members to Leeds –the difference it made to her was massive; not least because she was treated as an equal and her views respected – which is so important.

“We joined the community-led housing network and look where we are now – we think that our planning permission will be granted by the end of June [2021] to build 22 houses. Learning from other members about what they were doing with their local authority gave us confidence– and we thought ‘Right, we can try this.’

“Through Locality we’ve had grants, coaching and support from other members. And that’s saying nothing of the moral support we have had through the staff and through the network.”

The Power of Community

Dianne believes that, during the pandemic, community groups across the country have proven their value beyond any doubt.  It is now vital that this evidence is listened to by government, and used to create more efficient, more equitable and more effective services.

“The community has started to find its voice through Covid…communities and community organisations have begun to recognise that they are powerful. It’s critical that people hold onto that and don’t let it go. There has been a lot of rhetoric about community being the answer. We need to bring this forward and embed it.

“We are always asked for evidence [of impact] by the public sector. Through Covid we have an evidence base that communities and community groups can provide the most effective and most efficient solutions for local issues. We can use this evidence to influence local and central government. That’s where Locality comes in – pulling those stories together.”