Meet … Kay Johnson MBE, founder of the Larder in Preston

'I’m not a boss, I don’t want to manage people, I want to work with them. And that is what we have achieved'

Kay grew up on a small farm in Lancashire, spent a brief spell as a chef and has worked for more than 20 years as a nutritionist managing food poverty initiatives nationally and overseas. She believes in ‘food fairness for all’ and is currently doing a PhD which will explore how fresh local produce can be made affordable to people on low incomes without farmers, producers, animals and the environment bearing the cost.

How did you first hear about co-ops?

I’ve always known about co-ops because of the type of areas that I’ve worked in. I’ve bought from Suma (and they now supply dried goods to the Larder) and I have personally shopped at Unicorn for many years. And I’ve known of lots of people who have worked for co-ops. I think because the Larder was a social enterprise first, we were already working in a co-operative way. I’m not a boss, I don’t want to manage people, I want to work with them. And that is what we have achieved.

How did the Larder start?

I was brought up on a farm, and worked as a chef, in nutrition and as a teacher. I lived in Scotland for a long time; when I came back to Preston, the sustainable food movement was starting and I thought about how to pull together my experiences and look at a more holistic approach to food. Seven years ago I brought together about 17 different organisations, and we developed the Sustainable Food Lancashire Charter. It’s a great piece of work that took about two years. It was funded by Public Health England (PHE) – but then PHE transitioned from the NHS into the council and the funding wasn’t there any more. However, the then-leader of Preston City Council, Peter Rankin, liked what we were doing and gave me the staff time of a lady called Alison Watts – together we started to implement the charter, with very little money, in a way that the community could benefit. 

The Charter was written based on the consultations, suggestions and opinions of about 400 people across Lancashire; the view from Preston was quite specific, with people saying that they really wanted a hub. So we started trying to work towards that, and set up the Larder as a social enterprise in 2015 so I could start applying for funding and small grants to keep us ticking over. 

How did you set up the co-operative?

We met Gareth Nash from Co-operative and Mutual Solutions, who told us a little bit more about co-ops, and said that we were already working in a kind of co-operative way. It was also around that time that Matthew Brown (current leader of Preston City Council) started talking about the Preston model, so it made sense for us to set up officially as a co-op, which we did in July 2018. So there’s now kind of two Larders: the worker co-operative and the social enterprise. The co-op is the business, then the social enterprise looks after the community activity. We have tried to become virtually sustainable, so that any money that we make in the business ploughs straight back into our community work, and before Covid-19, that was starting to work. 

Co-operatives UK has been really supportive, especially Irena Pistun, and I have been to different events and given talks. But it’s not easy, and most people don’t know that setting up a co-operative is an option. It helps when you’ve got a group of people who have a set of shared values. It made sense to us because of the nature of the work that we’re doing. I think it’s difficult for traditional businesses to think about co-ops as an economic model, or the circular economy, when most are ingrained to the idea of making money and growth.

What is the Larder doing today?

We opened the Larder cafe in 2019, and today also run a local food hub, a Kids in the Kitchen programme, Preston Roots food and diversity celebrations, and deliver cooked nutritious meals to people who may be struggling. We also run the Larder Food Academy to provide courses to groups within our Preston Community and are proud to work with the Preston Syrian Refugee Project and Edith Rigby House. And in December, we sold Lancashire Christmas hampers, the profits from which funded a family to take part in our Christmas Kids in the Kitchen programme.

What were you most proud of in 2020?

I got an MBE which was quite good! But I am so proud of the way our volunteers pulled together and adapted to a very difficult, unpredictable situation. We have been trying to come up with ideas to deal with very difficult circumstances, and everybody has got on board with it, it’s been an amazing expression of people’s generosity.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for 2021?

The biggest challenge is how to survive as a business. Our cafe has been closed since March – and that’s our main source of income. We’re also not sure what will happen with the food academy, which was just about to start delivering face-to-face accredited catering qualifications. A lot of time and effort has gone into putting things in place which were all about to start just as Covid-19 happened. 

But there is also now a chance to build on all of the successes we have had since March; we’ve been coming up with ideas that tackle the situation, and in a way these challenges have created opportunities. We have had to think on our feet and find solutions to situations that I think we can now build on. For instance, our big plan was to develop a discounted food card; we are testing out our food voucher scheme over Christmas for families who are eligible for free school meals. 

The difficulty in Preston is that at present, there’s no food procurement, or food activity at all within the city council. The council’s priorities are very different from ours – they don’t have a food agenda. Their Community Engagement team are currently trying to address food poverty during the current crisis but have a different approach from us. Our aim is to make fresh local affordable to people on low incomes without farmers and producers bearing the cost.

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