Claire Cullens is the Chief Executive of Norfolk Community Foundation – and is passionate about making the county a better place for everyone. Here, she explains how its Nourishing Norfolk initiative is about more than preventing hunger
I think my life so far has been broadly very fortunate, with a healthy mix of challenges and opportunities. I certainly live it to the full and have always tried to push myself out of my comfort zone to try new things. I have been blessed with some very special people to spend it with, a wonderful husband and children that make me proud every day.
What led you to becoming CEO of Norfolk Community Foundation and what does it do?
Norfolk Community Foundation is a charity dedicated to building stronger communities and improving the lives of people in Norfolk.
We bring people together who want to make a difference where they live — that might be because they step up to take action themselves, or support those who do by giving funding or their professional time.
Supporting over 2,000 small charitable groups working on the ground, our work touches 1 in 4 people in Norfolk – from those dependent on local practical and social support, to whole communities benefiting from places to meet and places to go.
Prior to joining the Community Foundation, I had a career that started in international business working in developing markets and moved to career guidance and inspiration. The role at the Community Foundation brought together my passion for supporting people to live their best life alongside developing a business and network. It has proven challenging and exhilarating in equal measure and I can’t imagine a job I could love more.
How was everything looking for the Foundation at the start of the pandemic?
At the start of the pandemic, we knew we had to support the local and vital charities working in their communities because in times of uncertainty they offer a lifeline for our most vulnerable people. Our first mission was identifying the funding and support they needed and then to distribute it to them as rapidly as possible. Over the first year of the pandemic, we raised and invested over £4million to local charities, always making sure we listened to what they needed so we could get them the right type of help in the moment.
How did the Nourishing Norfolk Network come about?
During the pandemic we became aware that 25% of our funding was being used to support communities that were struggling to buy food. Many of these people were needing help for the first time. A cut in hours and earnings meant they simply could not make ends meet. We expected the crisis to deepen, and we knew our response funding would end so we needed to look at a creative solution for the future. I don’t think anyone anticipated the scale of the economic crisis we find ourselves in today.
Looking for inspiration we connected with Feeding Britain, a national organisation set up to support people in food poverty. Feeding Britain introduced us to the concept of a food hub, a community space offering quality food at much reduced prices thanks to a network of relationships with national and local suppliers making available short shelf-life products that might otherwise end in waste. We have built on the success and learnings from our first pilot hub which launched in Thetford in November 2020. We now have 5 food hubs open across Norfolk and a bus delivering support across the Breckland district. We are currently supporting over 1200 households and more than 3500 families. By the end of this year, we hope to have 15 hubs open and be supporting over 5000 of the most vulnerable households in Norfolk.
How and where can people access the Network?
Our website gives details of hubs open and in development so you can see how you can get support where you live.
What more needs to be done to make sure no-one in Norfolk goes hungry? How can organisations help?
Our key focus now is on continuing to open food hubs to match the need we are seeing. In the first 4 days of operating, 100 households came forward to the Breckland mobile bus to ask for support, proving how successful this model is, but also how much needed it is.
We have had some significant funding from local people and businesses, Norfolk County Council, Breckland District Council and Yarmouth Borough Council, but we still have a gap to close.
Any future plans you can share – for Nourishing Norfolk in particular and Norfolk Community Foundation at large?
We are continuing to build our network of hubs and want to ensure that everyone has access to support so that no one in Norfolk goes hungry. The food hubs provide more than low-cost food to thousands of people across the county, they also connect them to a range of important wraparound services which help to boost self- confidence, improve mental health, help with job skills and work to lift them out of poverty once and for all.
The challenges facing Norfolk at this time are immense. We need to work together as one community with a one vision of a better and brighter future. We are always delighted to share stories of our work and help people to connect with the areas they care about.
Food Hubs are open at Breckland Mobile Food Store (rural villages across Breckland); The Burrell Shop (Thetford); Feltwell Food Pantry (Thetford); Shrublands Food Club (Gorleston); Soul Foundation Social Supermarket (Norwich); Sally’s Store (Great Yarmouth). If you are a food grower or producer and want to donate food, the Foundation would welcome the opportunity to talk to you about how you might help. Please phone 01603 623958 or email email@example.com. For information on how you can give support the Norfolk Community Foundation, visit norfolkfoundation.com.