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The Food Train: supporting older people to eat healthily at home

Change Management

From a small commuter train to an intercity express – the development of the Food Train

Following the 1995 survey, a small group of volunteers in Dumfries responded to the community survey results and decided to get The Food Train going. A partnership with local shops/supermarkets was created to sort out the ordering system.  Funds were secured from Solway Community Enterprise to buy a van to make deliveries. This service was marketed to local older people with a first set of deliveries in 1995 going to five customers. Small amounts of funding were received from the NHS and, eventually, the council.

The Food Train was set up as a company limited by guarantee, with charitable status being awarded in 1996. All customers are members of the company.  Annual membership costs £1. Each grocery delivery has a charge of £2 (£3 from April 2012). Food Train ‘EXTRA’ services (practical home support) range from a fee of £3 to £10 per job (dependent on the size and time required for each job). Household repair charges from other providers can range up to £10 per hour and more, indicating the cost-effectiveness of the EXTRA service.

Food Train services are available to anyone aged 65 and over who find food shopping difficult. The Food Train operates with a great deal of flexibility: there are no minimum or maximum amounts for ordering; people are able to get the service weekly, fortnightly or less, and either short-term or long-term. Older people can join The Food Train through self-referral or they can be referred by anyone else. The service is not linked to health assessments or means testing, which eliminates the bureaucracy of form filling and allows the service to start up immediately.

The Food Train was run entirely by elderly volunteers until 2002. To be a volunteer an individual has to be over 16 years old. Dependent upon their voluntary role, the individual may be disclosure checked – and if they need a disclosure they will be unable to work directly with customers. Since 2011 this has been through the Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) Scheme Record introduced by the Scottish Government.

There are several roles that volunteers for the Food Train can play. They include:

  • Drivers and delivery people: All volunteers working directly with customers must work in teams of two. Drivers work with delivery people to pick-up shopping lists from members, usually on a Monday and take that list to the relevant shops or the Food Train office. On delivery day, drivers and their delivery mates go to the required supermarket. They will then check orders, load them into the van, and take them to the customer’s house, unpacking and putting away if necessary. 

  • Shoppers: Supermarkets working with the project contribute staff hours to make up the orders for the shoppers, supplemented by teams of volunteer shoppers in each store where required. These volunteers work with supermarkets, to pick and sort shopping and to put it on the van.

  • Promotional work volunteers:  These are required to ensure that older people are aware of this service, and also to highlight the benefits of volunteering to members of the community.

  • Office Staff: volunteers can aid administrative staff with taking calls, customer orders, completing shopping lists, helping with the rota and so on.

All volunteers are required to undertake some basic training. This ensures that they understand how the Food Train operates, their role, and how the shopping service works. Trainees also have the chance to shadow an experienced volunteer or staff member to ensure they are comfortable with their role. Every so often additional training can be provided by The Food Train or a public sector agency

When volunteers join they are asked how often they can help and what are their preferred times and days for getting involved. This helps to safeguard success, as volunteering can be tailored to each individual’s lifestyle and desired level of involvement. To ensure volunteers are well aware when they will be volunteering, so they can plan accordingly, a rota is drawn up a month in advance. 

Another method used to ensure there is open communication is through branch meetings, open to all volunteers, which are held every eight weeks. As well as disseminating news about the Food Train to volunteers, it gives an opportunity for The Food Train family to get together to discuss concerns, raise issues or share stories about how they have dealt with difficult situations and to celebrate when the service ran particularly efficiently.

The Food Train provides each customer with a blank order form so they can write out their grocery order.  Most customers have their order collected by the volunteers on a nominated day and a new blank form is left.  Customers who have difficulty writing an order have their order taken over the telephone by staff and volunteers.  Orders for the whole week are taken to the various shops and teams of volunteers will start on the orders.  In some shops the dried goods are packed the day before and fresh items added in the morning and in other stores the whole order is picked on the day of delivery.  Delivery routes are arranged for geographical efficiency and worked around the capacity of each van.  Customers received their order complete with their own till receipt and their original shopping list so it can all be checked off.  Customers pay the volunteers the cost of their own shopping plus the delivery charge either by cash or cheque.  If this is not possible for whatever reason we have a variety of different methods to resolve this.  Each local branch has a choice of shops that ‘support’ The Food Train, the customer can choose from the shops available in their local branch area.

The public sector in Scotland recognised that there was great potential in the project. A four year funding package from the Scottish Government was awarded in 2002 through the ‘Better Neighbourhood Service Fund’. This allowed one full-time staff member to be recruited initially to develop The Food Train across the region of Dumfries & Galloway (with an extra part-time member of staff in 2005). This investment ensured that by September 2005 The Food Train’s grocery delivery service was expanded from approximately 50 to around 380 customers.

Once the grocery delivery service became fully operational across Dumfries & Galloway in late 2005, the Food Train set its sights on another clear need of its members – an additional support service called The Food Train ‘EXTRA’ Service, which provides practical home support, helping the frailest with home tasks.

In 2008 a planning process to expand The Food Train to other parts of Scotland began. The Scottish Government, Community Food & Health (Scotland), and West Lothian Council provided support to ensure that The Food Train in West Lothian started in September 2010 – providing a grocery delivery service with an ‘EXTRA’ service in development. Moreover, a Food Train in Stirling, providing a grocery delivery service, began in November 2011, following support from the Scottish Government and Stirling Council. In January 2012, a Food Train Dundee, supported by the Scottish Government and Dundee City Council, was established and now provides a grocery delivery service.

Since August 2010 in Dumfries & Galloway a small pilot befriending service has been added to The Food Train to help the most socially isolated and lonely to get out and maintain and develop friendships helping them enjoy life.  Funding just awarded will now help this new service move from pilot phase to region-wide activity.

About this case study
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Michelle McCrindle

Chief Executive

Tel: (00 44) (0) 1387 270800

Gaynor Grant

National Development Officer



(00 44) (0) 7545 925513

Frankie Hine-Hughes wrote this case study for Governance International on 22 March 2012.

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