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Food firm's coronavirus angels are helping feed the people of Cambridge

For many people in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire, the fear of running out of food is second only to the fear of contracting the Covid-19 virus.

The supermarket shelves have been a testament to that over the past fortnight as shoppers entered panic mode, stocking up on canned and dried foods, as well as toilet rolls, flour and just about anything with a long shelf life.

Food delivery companies also underwent a surge in demand.

It was no different for the Cambridge Organic Food Company (Cofco), the Haslingfield-based firm which delivers boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables across Greater Cambridge.

Owner Duncan Catchpole took the decision to switch off his website’s order system and put something different in place – community angels.

While dealing with the logistics of still serving his loyal customers and keeping his staff safe, Duncan and the team created a system that gives priority for new orders to those most in need – the elderly, people at risk and those with food insecurity.

The Cambridge Organic Food Company has seen huge demand for its deliveries
The Cambridge Organic Food Company has seen huge demand for its deliveries

Duncan explained: “We were very keen that we are out there delivering to the people who need it the most.

“If we were to just reopen our old order system we would be inundated with new orders, but it would be the fastest people to react who we get places, rather than the elderly and those in long-term isolation.”

Instead, some of Cofco’s long-standing customers have volunteered to be a point of contact within their community. People wanting deliveries can find their angel on the firm’s website and register their interest.

“We’re trusting their judgment to pick out the people who are most in need of the service. You don’t have to be an elderly person who is trapped at home in order to register, it’s just who the angels consider are more needy will get bumped up the list.”

That waiting list will get shorter over the next few weeks as Cofco goes through a huge increase in its capacity.

“We were going through some fairly decent growth anyway,” said Duncan, “so we were actually doing close to 800 boxes a week leading up to this.

“Between six to seven hundred boxes a week was our norm and had been for the past seven years.

“When it all kicked off, we had to close our ordering system because it had just gone crazy. Despite closing the system my mid-morning on Tuesday [March 10] we had orders for 1,000 boxes and we did 1,100 last week.”

Behind the scenes plans are being put in place to move to a new industrial unit which is four times bigger than the current HQ.

“We would be able to do something like 3,000 boxes a week from there,” Duncan said.

With the increased workloads – and the restrictions – comes the pressure and stress but, like so many people, the Cofco staff have jumped every hurdle.

“I like to think that our staff and customers have stepped up to the plate, we’re really proud of everyone who’s got something to do with the business at the moment,” Duncan said.

“We’ve been dealing with unprecedented numbers of orders. Sometimes our staff have been out on the road until nine o’clock at night making sure that they get through to everybody.

“Every member of the team has been working twice as hard as normal with that background worry of being out in the world with a potentially deadly virus.

“Our customers have been showing really high levels of appreciation, hanging out of windows to say ‘thank you’.”

Duncan Catchpole at the firm's base in Haslingfield
Duncan Catchpole at the firm's base in Haslingfield

He added: “It’s been quite extraordinary. I’ve been doing six in the morning until pretty much midnight for two solid weeks now. Sometimes I’ve found I have been unable to talk when someone has asked a simple question.”

Extra staff – about a dozen – are waiting in the wings to join Cofco when it increases its capacity. But this too proved to be an awkward and time consuming process; because of Covid-19, training videos had to be created to get the newbies ready for the work.

Inevitably, Cofco’s range of goods and choice has had to change, but it is now working with other Cambridge companies to bring different goods to the doorstep (or at least as close as the rules will allow).

Duncan said: “Customers aren’t the only people that are suffering at the moment, there’s a lot of small food businesses that have had to shut their doors – these are businesses that were in our network before.

“Two that particularly spring to mind are Fitzbillies and Hot Numbers – two very well regarded local businesses. They still have products which they would like to get out to their customers, even to just keep themselves in business as much as possible.

“Fitzbillies is going to be doing bakery boxes, which we’re going to deliver. A customer can get a couple of loaves of bread and some Chelsea buns. That helps Fitzbillies’ turnover a little bit in this close-down period. And hopefully Hot Numbers will be doing a coffee scheme and making a video so people can make a coffee shop-style coffee at home.

“It’s not just about having some food to eat. People are going to be missing those little bits of normality – like going to a coffee shop or having a Chelsea bun. We can try and make the experience of being locked in a home a little bit more bearable and at the same time help out a couple of local businesses that we think an awful lot of.”

Duncan’s advice for people is not to panic: “Be reassured that local independent businesses are gearing up for a different type of food service. There’s lots going on, not just here at Cofco, there are other local businesses that are reevaluating the routes to market.

“No one should be really worried that food is not going to get through to them.”

Find your community angel at cofco.co.uk.

Read more:

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