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An Honest Conversation...
How to Turn Food Waste into a Feast for London’s Most Vulnerable

“If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world”. According to OLIO, the social enterprise which invented an app that allows neighbours to share leftover food, this type of waste is one of the biggest known contributors to climate change. Every year, the UK alone wastes 18 million tonnes of food (worth 23 million GBP), ⅔ of which come from supply chain and retail. But the environmental impact isn’t the only morally dubious aspect of wasting food. Food loss is also one of the many faces of global social inequality.

In fact, despite living in one of the biggest economies in the world, 1.3 million UK citizens currently suffer from malnutrition. London-based charity FEAST! is one organization determined to shine its light on this bleak situation. FEAST! collects surplus food from various food retailers weekly, taking it to homeless shelters and community kitchens. There, FEAST! volunteers cook 3-course meals together with vulnerable adults, creating a community where people dine as equals while looking after the planet. We spoke to founder and NHS Dietitian Hannah Style, who explains she created the charity based on three aims: malnutrition prevention, community cohesion and food waste reduction.

How many food donations do you receive from retailers for each FEAST! centre?

We’re still in the process of quantifying the exact amount, but I would estimate 60-100kg per week. This amount of surplus food is donated from one supermarket, or a few small businesses, per centre. 

It seems like an impressive amount of food that would otherwise go to waste..

What’s most remarkable is that we’re just not talking about food that’s past the sell-by date. This is food that cannot be sold because “it doesn’t look good enough”. It’s fruit and veg that might have marks, or packaging that has a dent in it. This show that as a society, we don’t know the value of food. We don’t know the journey the food has been through, or how to gauge with our own eyes and noses whether it is edible or not! We could all do with being more aware of where our food comes from and how it landed on our tables. But as the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure…

You’re performing an activity which is incredibly useful for our society… how did you have this idea? What was your motivation to set FEAST! up?

When I started FEAST! originally, I never intended for it to be a charity. It was just a nice thing to do on a Thursday evening once a month. I just happened to have a free evening. I rocked up to this hostel for vulnerable adults and asked them if I could organise a meal for their residents. “I’ll sort the food and the people”, I said. So I went into Kilburn Park Sainsbury’s in my sweaty bike gear. It took two seconds for the manager to agree to give me their leftovers… he was delighted!

It became a weekly rendezvous in no time. Because people could see the need for it. For the supermarket, it was much better to have things collected once a week than once a month. The residents, on the other hand, were hungry. And many were yearning for a community feel. 

What were you doing at that moment in your life?

I was working in an NHS hospital setting as a graduate Dietitian. I could see all these people who were malnourished and I was able to help in a clinical setting. But then I would leave work, and see so many more individuals on the streets, suffering from malnutrition. None of them had an NHS number or a GP registration! I realized that these were the people that I needed to reach, those who really needed support.

Another key driver to founding FEAST! was the “Waste Not, Want not” attitude I was brought up with. In my family, we would never waste anything and repurpose everything.

Does FEAST receive any funding?

By-and-large, we are operating on a shoestring. However, we have been lucky to receive some in-kind, ad-hoc grants, for which we are supremely grateful! Over the years we’ve received funding from Aviva, the Evening Standard, Stewart’s Law and Fox Williams. Any donation is fundamental to us to keep us running.

To support us in executing and maintaining projects, however, we do need a reliable grant that will last us a few years. Because we need someone who receives a salary in order to keep those relationships with different managers. This will allows us to keep the network flowing. We’ve also received a lump sum from a private donor, which was incredibly helpful. Regardless of the many generous donations, however, funds are still not quite enough to do what we are trying to do.

What are you trying to achieve?

We are trying to raise funds to sustain our activities in multiple centres each week. We want to maintain our partnerships and help them grow so that they can support the participants. Another important aim is to ensure that volunteers continue to sign-up, and that retailers continue to donate their surplus. To do that, we need a reliable stream of funds. Having more permanent members of staff, for instance, will help us ensure that the intimacy and community feel is any participants’ first and last impression of FEAST!

At the time of applying for the Evening Standard Grant [in 2016], some friends and I were running the project. It did create an intimate setting, however, I knew that this would not be sustainable in the long term. The Evening Standard agreed to give us this grant on the condition that we became a charity, with a bank account, and a board of trustees. As soon as we set up, we expanded to run our project in another centre! There was a clear need for it, and there still is… unfortunately.

I’m interested in knowing more about the operational model you run on.

FEAST has three key stakeholders: vulnerable adults who are at risk of malnutrition, volunteers who are interested in sustainable practices, and supermarkets which need to dispose of their surplus food. Firstly, FEAST is providing nutritional needs that aren’t met in the user population. Secondly, it’s bringing them together with volunteers who are looking for an opportunity to give their time and energy. Last but not least, it is saving food that is perfectly fine to eat from going to waste.

How many staff members do you have?

We have two part-time members of staff who coordinate relationships with the hostel managers, activity coordinators, community managers. The most successful flagships are in hostels because they’ve got that key worker that can build a community.

How is FEAST different from standard food banks?

FEAST! is a charity which encourages vulnerable adults to be a part of a community meal; to come and dine as equals. It is not just a food bank. Because attendees have the opportunity to cook the meals, it’s a different experience from going somewhere to have a meal that’s been cooked for you. It encourages people to create the best meal out of what they have, out of different ingredients every week. For most individuals, this “make do” attitude is also reflected by their current life situation.

Do you see a lot of plastic packaging in the donations you receive weekly?

Yes, and anyone who does a supermarket shop can see the surplus plastic. There’s cling film on a passion fruit, or a cucumber, or on bananas… it’s infuriating sometimes! They are closed in their own skin, they don’t to be wrapped in plastic! We’re not measuring that actively at the moment, but of course, that’s one of the main things we notice. We’re looking at measuring our environmental dent, but we can’t robustly do that, yet. 

If you would like to volunteer some of your time and cooking skills to FEAST, you can get in touch with them on their website. Their 4 regular centres run from Monday to Friday in Canning Town, Islington, Kilburn and Camden Town; with two more centres opening soon.

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