Food Matters: Tackling food poverty in Cambridge

Rachel Rees Middleton 15 December 2016
Image Credit: Alex Collis

Food waste is something most of us are guilty of. A cursory glance around my student kitchen would doubtless discover a whole host of long out-of-date and forgotten items bought on a whim from Sainsbury’s. Deeper discussion often reveals that although students try to avoid food waste and by and large treat sell-by-dates with little caution, there is always some inevitable waste. Although each individual’s waste easily mounts up, this can hardly compare to the colossal amount of food and drink that is thrown away by supermarkets on a daily basis, an estimated 115,000 tonnes. Despite this, there are steps being taken in the right direction, including the ‘Real Junk Food Project’ in Leeds, a warehouse selling food that would have otherwise been thrown away by supermarkets.

FoodCycle is one charitable organisation which is working towards solving the issue of food waste, collecting surplus food from supermarkets and other food distributors and transforming it into tasty and nutritious meals for people who are at risk of food poverty. It began back in May 2009, and according to their website, they have “served over 125,000 meals made using over 146,000kg of surplus food – the equivalent saving of 657,000kg CO2 emissions”. It has since been successful in establishing Hubs in various locations across England, including one in Cambridge.

Earlier this term, I contacted FoodCycle Cambridge and was welcomed by Alex Collis, Communications & Outreach Coordinator for the Hub. Serving a weekly Saturday lunch at Wesley Methodist Church and a fortnightly Wednesday evening meal at Barnwell Baptist church, they are also looking to expand to a fortnightly Thursday dinner at Arbury Road Baptist church, in the North of the city. Alex, who first became involved with FoodCycle after teaching at Anglia Ruskin, explained to me that the food is collected, cooked, and served by a team of local volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. Although there are around 120 registered volunteers, she reckons about 50 people volunteer regularly and a handful of these very regularly. Some are retired, others fit volunteering around already hectic working lives but they all want to do something good with their free time, bringing their skills and their passion for food to the table.

I went along to their first evening meal at Arbury Road and was quickly set to work chopping apples, to make a huge apple charlotte for desert. Chatting to hub leader and surplus food coordinator Vib in the kitchen, she explained to me how every week surplus produce is collected by a team of volunteers from shops across the city including Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer’s, the Cambridge Fruit and Veg Company, and Lensfield Road Farmer’s Market. Along with the apple charlotte, the menu that night was a starter of squash soup served with bread and main course of chilli served with caramelised red onions, sour cream, roasted carrots and beetroot and homemade cheese scones. An imaginative and tasty feast – all made from food which would have otherwise gone to waste.

The following Saturday I arrived at Wesley Methodist Church just in time to help set up the hall for dinner. It was all systems go in the kitchen: with Halloween just around the corner, there had been plenty of pumpkins to prepare and cook. At around midday, people started to come in and have a cup of tea or coffee. Alex tells me that there are some regulars who attend every Saturday although there are often new faces. Some of the guests are homeless, others are elderly with limited mobility and others are families who don’t always have the luxury of being able to provide a filling, home-cooked meal for themselves and their children. I spoke to Linda who was born on Mill Road and loves the city of Cambridge. She and her husband are both in wheelchairs and she is diabetic; for them, the weekly FoodCycle meal is a welcome relief from the challenges of cooking.

This year, FoodCycle Cambridge is one of RAG’s five local charities and they are always looking for more volunteers willing to lend a hand. From speaking to Alex and some of the other volunteers it is clear that what they do makes sense on so many levels: taking food which is regarded as undesirable for the regular consumer and making it into a delicious and imaginative meal for those who need it most. Getting round a table to share a good meal is one of the most important human experiences: FoodCycle is making sure that this joy is not just available to the privileged few.

If you are interested in volunteering for FoodCycle or learning more about their work, please visit their website or their blog, where you can read about the Breadline Challenge which some of the volunteers took part in. They can also be found on Twitter @FoodCycleCamb and Facebook @FoodCycleCambridge