More than £1,000 worth of fresh produce has been donated to vulnerable families and individuals using a Tyneside-based food bank, thanks to a new initiative celebrating the North East’s food and drink heroes.

The milk, butter and eggs from regional producers have been gifted to the Newcastle West End Foodbank over the course of the past month courtesy of a special community fund linked to the Food and Drink North East Group’s (FaDNE) Local Heroes virtual market.

So far more than 400 litres of milk and 20 rolls of butter from Darlington-based Acorn Dairy, and 2,400 eggs supplied by Northumbrian Free Range Eggs in Matfen near Morpeth, have been given to the food bank, which has seen a 250% year-on-year surge in demand for its services as the Covid-19 crisis pushes increasing numbers into hardship.

The facility is just one of many North East-based charities and social enterprises FaDNE plans to support through its community fund, financed by a 10% levy added to shoppers bills when they buy carefully curated food boxes and larder essentials from the Local Heroes online platform, which was launched in May in response to the coronavirus lockdown.

Des Kennedy, Director of FaDNE, said: “Fresh produce is something that food banks are often short of as the majority of donations tend to be long-life foods such as tinned goods, pasta, pulses and cereals.

“When we heard the Newcastle West End Foodbank would welcome the likes of milk, butter and eggs as it faces what is a national food emergency hitting the poorest and most vulnerable in society, it seemed obvious we should earmark this first tranche of money from our community fund to helping meet this need.

“It had always been FaDNE’s intention to build a community fund that could be used to help support projects and organisations working in areas of food poverty.

“When the coronavirus pandemic hit, putting North East producers and suppliers livelihoods at risk and making it difficult for many people to source and buy food, we knew we needed to act quickly to launch a virtual market that would allow consumers to access high-quality groceries, show their support for local businesses and, through our community fund, benefit those in need across our region.

“It is the perfect circular economy: local money raised by local people benefitting both local businesses and charities.

“I can’t think of a better charity for us to partner with than the Newcastle West End Foodbank, which has been working tirelessly to meet the unprecedented demand for its services.”

The Newcastle West End Foodbank based in the Church of the Venerable Bede on the West Road has been operating in the city since 2013 and is now Britain’s largest. It has recently widened its scope to cover all of Newcastle as the need for its food parcels has swelled.

John McCorry, chief executive of the food bank, said: “We are in the midst of a very challenging period. This time last year we were distributing between eight and nine tonnes of food a month; that has now increased to between 21-26 tonnes as people have had to self-isolate and financial worries and job losses have started to rise.

“We have adapted the way in which we operate and are supporting more local people than ever before. In June, we helped 4,873 people across the city and distributed 1,828 food parcels, a rise of 250%.

“We rely entirely on donations of both food and money, but for a host of reasons, fresh produce isn’t something we are usually able to include in our food parcels. The help from Food and Drink North East has been a welcome and healthy addition.

“The quality of the produce that has been provided has been excellent and we have been able to send it straight out the same day. For those people who rely on our food parcels, it has been a great boost to have access to fresh produce.”

FaDNE, which is a community interest company, was launched in February this year with the specific aim of helping grow businesses and promoting a sustainable, circular economy, and to act as a collective and inclusive voice for the region’s food and drink sector, not just UK-wide, but globally.

Covering an area from Berwick to the North Yorkshire border, FaDNE has already built up a network of more than 500 businesses, ranging from major food companies like Greggs to small independents.

Local Heroes is designed to showcase the best food and drink this region has to offer. More than 190 large and small producers are currently selling their wares via the virtual market, where consumers can buy a readymade fresh food box or build their own from scratch.

Mr Kennedy said: “The initiative is a proactive and coordinated response aimed at connecting local people to local food like never before, while at the same time helping people in need and reducing our impact on the environment.”