Michael Alexander speaks to volunteers working with the Dundee Food Train – a charity striving to make a significant difference to the lives of older people in the city, and which is always on the look out for new volunteers.
It is a charity which delivers shopping to older people who struggle to get to the supermarket and provides a befriending service.
But the Food Train in Dundee could never do what it does without the efforts of local volunteers.
Since being established in Dumfries and Galloway in 1995, Food Train has expanded across Scotland to help those who are no longer able to do shopping independently through age, ill health, frailty or disability.
Customers complete a blank grocery shopping list each week which is collected by volunteers.
Shopping is completed and delivered by volunteers at local shops on a nominated day.
Shopping is delivered to homes in a box which is unpacked by volunteers and volunteers will also put things away if needed.
The customer pays for their shopping and pays a delivery charge.
Perhaps just as importantly, however, the service also allows the recipients to build up relationships with the volunteers, who in turn can help keep an eye out for any other needs.
Meet the volunteers
Amongst the volunteers working with the Food Train in Dundee are Bruce and Sue Powrie of Broughty Ferry.
The retired couple, who spent their working lives in London, became involved after retiring back to Bruce’s home city of Dundee in 2010.
Bruce, 73, a former pupil of Morgan Academy and Rockwell High School, stayed in Linlathen and Dryburgh Gardens, Lochee.
After a spell working with William Kidd printer stationers in Dundee’s Union Street, he moved to London aged 18 to “improve his circumstances”.
After a spell working for a company on Fleet Street, he joined Ryman in 1969 and stayed with them until retirement.
In 1974, he met Sue, now 67, from Middlesbrough, who had moved to London to do teacher training. They married in 1979 and settled in the Big Smoke where Sue worked as a secondary school English teacher.
During visits to and from Scotland to visit Bruce’s parents over the years, they built up lots of friendships and fell in love with Broughty Ferry. So when retirement came, moving there felt like the “natural choice”.
“I joined Dundee Food Train near the start of its launch – at the end of 2011 – mainly to do something reasonably useful while I was still able sort of thing,” explains Bruce, who does deliveries to homes across Dundee every Wednesday.
“I saw the advert for volunteers. That’s when I applied.”
Sue didn’t get involved at first. When they first moved to Dundee, she signed up to do the Children’s Panel and joined a local Cancer Research fundraising group.
Lockdown sign up
She got involved with the Food Train during lockdown in 2020 because the other activities she had been involved with stopped.
“I volunteered as a shopper,” she smiles.
“I just do two mornings a week – in Asda. The people from the Food Train office go round the clients and get their shopping lists for the week and then some of the shopping lists go to Asda and some go to Tesco. I do Asda on a Tuesday and a Thursday morning.
“It keeps you fit walking round Asda for three hours twice a week. But it’s also useful, and it’s nice that the clients see the same faces delivering. They get to know the people. The supermarket staff are also absolutely fantastic.”
Bruce explains that after originally starting in Dumfries, the Food Train expanded to the likes of Dundee, Glasgow and Stirling. There are plans, he says, to expand into Fife.
Bruce adds: “Generally users of the service are referred by the local councils. If a person’s unable to get out the house they can put themselves forward for the Food Train.
“Unfortunately, it often gets confused with the food banks which is completely different thing. The people we serve pay for the food that they order plus a small delivery charge.”
Sue says the Food Train delivery charge tends to be cheaper than supermarket delivery charges.
For her though it’s the “personal touch” that’s one of the other strengths.
“Even reading the lists on a Tuesday and Thursday,” she says, “you get to know what peoples’ likes are and that sort of thing.
“Also it’s good in that it’s not just through social services. People can refer their elderly relatives.
“They do a lot of publicity about it. The people often contact the office and they get put on the list. But also it’s a nice way of keeping an eye on people as well.
“People like Bruce going in can see if there’s a problem or people needing more support, and you can report that to the office, and they’ll contact social services to alert them. That’s good.”
Healthy living advice
Sue says the charity doesn’t ‘police’ what people put on their lists as such. But they do look at what people eat and try, where necessary, to talk to them about their choices and ensure they have a spread of things in the interests of healthy balanced living.
Bruce recalls a client who was ordering 24 bottles of white wine a week. That was soon stopped after the charity “had words” with the person.
However, the shoppers also get an idea of the sort of choices and brands that people want and what they can afford.
“Sometimes where say the shop doesn’t have a particular thing they’ve asked for, you must try and bear in mind that if you are trying to put an alternative in, it must be a cost effective one,” says Sue.
“You can’t put something you might buy in knowing the person might struggle to pay for that.
“There’s a balancing act. But I think on the whole because you get so used to it, you automatically know what they will accept and what they won’t accept.
“Also, if they’ve asked for something and the shop haven’t got it, or we’ve given them something that they don’t want, we can always return it.
“Sometimes you see people ask for household items, like bedding. It’s not just food. I’ve had to kit out a whole bedroom at one point with a table lamp and duvet covers etc!”
Sue told how when she first started she went out on the van to see how it operated.
She was struck by the quite difficult conditions some elderly people were living in.
At the same time, however, many were “just so cheerful” and a “real joy” to visit.
It also hit home that for some, the Food Train delivery driver is the only person they see all week.
Bruce explains that in addition to the food shopping and deliveries, the Food Train provides a befriending service.
Making a meal of it
Meal Makers – a local meal sharing service where people share an extra portion of a meal with an older neighbour – was suspended for a time during the first lockdown.
However, they got it back with people leaving meals on doorsteps.
Food Train says it was back up and running by summer last year and is operating at full-tilt now.
Bruce adds, however, that for all the positives, building up friendships with the elderly can bring other challenges.
“Unfortunately you see people who’ve been relatively active but you see a gradual decline over time which can be quite upsetting sometimes,” he says.
“Then one day, you don’t get a list from them… Some of the staff find it difficult that way.
“Otherwise, generally, some of the clients are fantastic. You get 90 year olds. We’ve got a 101 year old still delivered to and she gets a couple of bottles of white wine each week! It obviously keeps her going! She’s quite a perky 101-year-old!”
Benefits of volunteering
Grant Simmons, Food Train’s regional manager for Dundee, praised the work of the charity’s volunteers.
He says: “We’re blessed with a remarkable and dedicated team of volunteers in Dundee, whose commitment to our charity makes a significant difference to the lives of older people in the city.
“Time and again – never more so than since the beginning of the pandemic – they have stepped up and worked incredibly hard to meet the demand we have faced and to ensure older people have not gone without vital supplies, whether by gathering lists, shopping for orders or delivering them to peoples’ homes.
“The impact of what they do should not be underestimated.
“By helping older people to eat well – and taking a few minutes each week to have a blether with them – they are helping them to live better lives in their own homes. Our members are truly grateful, as is the staff team, for all that they do.”
How to get involved
Anyone over the age of 16 can volunteer, subject to a Disclosure Scotland check. Volunteering can also be done flexibly with different roles on offer.
If you are interested in volunteering with Food Train in Dundee, please call 01382 810944 or email [email protected]
More details can also be found at www.thefoodtrain.co.uk