Breaking Bread Together: tackling social isolation & hunger with food waste

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Food poverty in the UK has increased by more than 160 per cent in the past year, according to some estimates. Yet, 98 per cent of edible surplus food is thrown away by grocers and retailers.

“In the UK, an estimated 20 million tonnes of food is wasted each year across the supply chain (from plough to plate) with at least 400,000 tonnes of this thrown away at retail level,” according to FoodCycle, which served more than 31,000 meals last year to people in need.

With the help of volunteers working at community hubs, FoodCycle sources surplus food from retailers and prepares hot, nutritious meals for vulnerable community members. Different from a food bank, FoodCycle also tackles social isolation – its communal dining events help people build social connections, which has shown to be a key factor affecting community resilience and even individual life spans.

“We serve a three-course meal, cooked from scratch, which will often include up to five portions of fruit and vegetables,” said Steven Hawkes, Communications and Fundraising Manager at FoodCycle. “It is also incredibly important to us that we’re serving good food, not just any food. Even though they are ‘surplus’ ingredients, everything we use is perfectly edible.”

FoodCycle was recently named a winner of the Makers of More challenge, launched by Arthur Guinness Projects and Ashoka Changemakers. We sat down with Steven to discuss the challenges of putting surplus food to work and how sitting down to eat together can also strengthen communities.

1. Why is so much food wasted in the UK?

Food is wasted for all sorts of reasons – at a household level it’s often due to cooking too much, not using leftovers, and buying too much to start with. Meanwhile at a retail level, waste can occur due to mislabelling, product or packaging damage, shelf life date expiration, and over-ordering.

FoodCycle works with supermarkets, greengrocers and other retailers to source perfectly edible surplus food in a safe and responsible way. This food would otherwise be sent to landfill, anaerobic digestion, or composting. We take these ingredients (mainly fresh fruit and vegetables) to a local kitchen space, and our volunteers turn them into healthy three-course meals for people at risk of food poverty and social isolation in the community.

Islington Hub2. What are some of the challenges FoodCycle faces with sourcing or preparing surplus food?

All sorts really! To start, it was a challenge to convince retailers to donate their

surplus food and to start new partnerships with charities and community centres. We’ve learnt a lot over the last five years and built up that essential trust and credibility. We’re now in conversations with all major supermarkets and have a much more robust expansion model of social franchising.

A day-to-day challenge is not knowing what food we’ll get each day – but that can also be a hugely enjoyable part of volunteering! Our volunteers collect the ingredients just a few hours before serving a three-course meal for around 40 people so it’s always a challenge. We have to make the most of whatever surplus we get from retailers that week. There are some things we almost always get (bananas, salad leaves, bread) but most ingredients will be totally unpredictable: from a sack of potatoes and a glut of mushrooms one week to kilograms of aubergines and lemons the next!

Because of this, our volunteers need to be creative and resourceful in the kitchen – it’s a bit like Ready, Steady, Cook but on a much bigger scale! Of course we do encourage volunteers to buy some ingredients: often pasta, rice, lentils, or dairy products to make sure the meals we’re serving are as tasty, balanced, and nutritious as possible.

3. FoodCycle works with community partners in order to deliver hot, nutritious meals to those most in need. Can you tell us about one such community partner and how they have been crucial to making an impact?

We serve FoodCycle meals to people at risk from food poverty and social isolation, which in practice means that we build a partnership with a local community group working with vulnerable individuals.

For example, our Islington Hub works with the local MIND centre and serves to people affected by mental health issues, and our Leeds Hub works with refugees and asylum seekers at a local community centre.

We work with five vulnerable groups at our projects across the UK: homeless people, older people, people affected by mental health problems, low-income families, and asylum seekers/refugees.

As well as the immediate benefit of a healthy meal, many FoodCycle service users really value the social side of our meal. For people that live alone this might be the only time in the week that they get the opportunity to sit down and eat with others.

4. Sharing a meal tackles both food poverty and social isolation. How has sitting down and eating together affected the communities FoodCycle serves?

Eating with others has huge social benefits – it helps people to connect with each other, it relaxes people, it encourages mindful eating, and it’s fun. Ultimately it’s the best way to enjoy food – and we believe everyone deserves the right to this. Our FoodCycle Hubs bring people together at the dining table – many of whom live alone and will eat alone for the rest of the week – to enjoy a nutritious three-course meal in a friendly and welcoming environment.

Some examples of the benefits of sharing a meal include:
85% of our guests have made new friends since coming to FoodCycle
87% of our guests feel more part of the community since coming to FoodCycle
54% of guests are now interested in volunteering or being involved in other activities in their community

By providing a sit-down meal in a warm and welcoming atmosphere, we work to reduce social isolation – as people who often feel excluded get the chance to mix with others and feel valued as part of their community. This can have a huge community benefit: food brings people together in a way that nothing else really can.