Turning a cafe into a supermarket – how a Salford social enterprise is transforming how a community can address health inequalities.

If you were asked to picture our health system you’d probably think of hospitals, GP practices, ambulances and care homes. What you probably wouldn’t think about are gyms, childcare, woodland adventures and supermarkets.

In Salford, Greater Manchester, one social enterprise is radically changing how a community can address health inequalities through redefining what is possible when it comes to the delivery of care. How? Through genuinely placing communities at the heart of their work, thinking outside the box, setting up businesses to create a sustainable source of income and genuine employee ownership.

Social adVentures was set up in 2011, part of the wave of organisations which ‘spun-out’ of the public sector following the Government’s Right to Request programme which encouraged the creation of public sector mutuals. Founder Scott Darraugh and the rest of the team believed that moving out of formal NHS structures would allow them to be more innovative and closer to the issues faced by people. Since taking these first steps they’ve not looked back!

What’s immediately striking about Social adVentures is the range of work the organisation does and perhaps most importantly how all the varied parts of their business model fit together to create a social enterprise which is embedded in the local community. It is a social enterprise co-owned by staff and local people – allowing the co-design and co-production of services, bringing service users into decision making and giving staff more autonomy to make decisions and come up with their own solutions.

Social adVentures’ core mission is to enable healthy lives and it started off as part of NHS Salford in the public health unit running community programmes including learning disabilities and mental health services. Since setting up as an independent social enterprise they’ve expanded on this to win a series of contracts including a partnership delivering social prescribing services in Salford. This involves working closely with partners in the public sector and the VCSE community to sign-post individuals to the most relevant services with an emphasis on preventative care.

Alongside public health and social care contracts Social adVentures runs a series of social enterprises, the surpluses from which not only fund services but which are themselves a vital part of increasing community health and wellbeing.

These include day nurseries, a community garden, a community gym, forest school training and a social supermarket based at the organisation’s HQ, the Angel Centre – a complex which runs a series of programmes, classes and events from work placements, counselling and coaching to services around quitting smoking and drinking.

Every individual business is dedicated to making a difference to help enable people to live healthy lives. Garden Needs is a mental health contract delivered by Social adVentures from their community garden which provides around 2028 hours of support to adults with mental health conditions every year – bringing people together, building confidence and helping people manage their own mental health. One participant on Garden Needs said that “anybody that comes through that front door of this place is made welcome, dealt with in a sympathetic manner, made to feel human again”

It’s rare that a health and social care organisation would run nurseries and education services but it all fits in with the social enterprises’ ethos of looking at the causes of ill health and dealing with it. The cost of childcare is often prohibitive and the demand around it can be a barrier to work and a cause of stress. The Social adVentures team saw the value of looking at a social enterprise solution to this, joining the dots between childcare costs, unemployment and mental health. The nurseries, run under the brand Kids adVentures, offer free childcare for those who need it and also offer employment opportunities for people on Social adVentures’ apprenticeship programme. Currently, the social enterprise runs four childcare settings and even forest schools, allowing children to build a connection with nature and improve their physical and mental wellbeing.

Nattalie Young has been working as a Nursery Nurse at Kids adVentures from July 2020 and had this to say about the organisation’s embeddedness in communities:

“It’s very different working here compared to a traditional nursery. You know you are coming into work and not just helping the children and their families but that the work you do has a wider impact on the community. That changes the way you think about work and makes you feel like you are really part of something.”

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Nattalie Young at Kids adVentures

This holistic approach to health really came into its own last year with the onset of the COVID pandemic with all the aspects of the business coming together to support service users, staff and the wider community.

One of the most inspiring elements of their work revolved around the issue of food poverty – something made even more apparent by the economic consequences of the pandemic. The Social adVentures team created a food club with the support of food poverty charity, Fareshare, working with their school to provide food parcels to vulnerable people in their community and those who were shielding.

Recognising the immense pressure facing frontline health workers they also turned the kitchen at Garden Needs into a busy food hub which was producing 600 hot meals a week to feed NHS staff at the local A&E, staff at COVID triage Centres and at testing sites.

Prior to the pandemic, one of Social adVentures most popular ventures was a community café run out of the Angel Centre but this had to close when the country went into lockdown. Staff decided that this space could be transformed into a social supermarket to act as a permanent hub to provide affordable, fresh food for the local community and to support the food club. Kate Simpson, Service Director at Social adVentures, described the supermarket (called the Food Collective) as running a “sort of Robin Hood model” with purchases from the supermarket helping fund the food poverty tackling food club.

Dale Finney started working as a Retail Assistant at the Food Collective in March this year and has been able to source products from local and ethical suppliers that he thinks will work well in the shop. This has included stocking items from other social enterprises and socially responsible companies including HMPasties, which employs ex-offenders and creates handmade traditional pasties, and The Shetland Soap Company.

He said this about what it means to be a part of the Social adVentures team:

“It has been fantastic to be given the opportunity to grow the Food Collective from scratch and to implement my own ideas. There’s no barrier to making changes that you think will work in your area of the business and that means you feel trusted and valued.

When we first opened we put a call out for volunteers to come and help. We had an overwhelming response with more than 50 people from the local community offering their time. Since we started we have given out 1500 food parcels and this is continuing to grow.”

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Dale and some of the team at the Food Collective

As well as setting up these programmes to tackle food poverty, staff at the nurseries went the extra mile to provide childcare for keyworker’s children at a time when many other nurseries were forced to close. Opening hours were extended and premises remained open on weekends and bank holidays.

With regular activities having to be cancelled staff did all they can to continue to support the people they work with across the business. Postal packs focusing on topics from fitness and cooking to poetry and art were sent out and a local actor created engaging video content to make these more interesting and accessible.

The breadth of services and business Social adVentures runs means that this is all just a snapshot of the incredible work they do. The work being carried out by the businesses’ 50 staff shows how a social enterprise, embedded in its community can work across sectors to link up care and join up the dots when it comes to recognising and dealing with cause of ill health. What’s more they are showing how the freedom that comes with being an independent social enterprise can allow both staff and members of the community to come up with genuinely innovative ideas, such as turning a café into a supermarket! Through setting up social enterprises under the Social adVentures umbrella such as the nurseries, community garden and a gym, they have created a degree of financial stability rare in the public sector. Remarkably nearly half of all the money coming into the business is through trading income.

‘People centred public services’, ‘putting patients first’ and ‘empowering communities’ are phrases often used by politicians when talking about public service reform and the sustainability of our health system. What’s often not talked about is what this can look like in practice. Social adVentures may well offer a blueprint as to what the future of public services can look like.


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