Community kitchen cooks up a storm in London

Melanie Strickland discovers how volunteers are turning ‘waste’ food from local shops into healthy, cheap meals each Sunday at The People’s Kitchen

It started out as a small but ambitious project to draw attention to the shocking problem of food waste in our society and has become an instant hit with the locals. Every Sunday at the Passing Clouds arts and music venue in Dalston, London, the People’s Kitchen serves up nutritious meals made from food that cannot be sold by shops but is still fit for consumption.

According to Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, all the world’s nearly one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe.

Established in October 2010, the People’s Kitchen sees a team of volunteers head out on foot or by bicycle each week, to collect and then prepare and cook the food – and there is no shortage of people willing to be involved. Local grocery stores supply produce that has reached its best before date but is still safe to eat and would otherwise be thrown away.

I went along to see the People’s Kitchen in action. Professional chef Steve Wilson, who founded the project, put the menu together for the evening and directed the volunteers. I started out feeling a bit like a rogue element in an otherwise largely self-organising system, but I got the hang of it soon enough.

Once all the hard work preparing and cooking the food has been done, a feast is served at the communal table. Here you will find an array of well-presented and nutritious dishes, such as huge and delectably garnished salads (I helped with these), vegetable couscous, soup, pastas, and a selection of breads, cheeses and desserts.

Anyone can drop by and eat for a small (voluntary) donation, making the People’s Kitchen one of London’s most affordable places to eat a delicious vegetarian meal in great company on a Sunday night.

By 6pm the queue was out the door. Dozens of people had turned up to eat, and I was told that on this particular Sunday evening it was “quiet.” With infectious enthusiasm, People’s Kitchen organiser Dan Key gave a short speech before we ate, to explain the ethos behind it all.

Building on its success, the People’s Kitchen now wants to inspire a movement of community kitchens up and down the country. Its website contains comprehensive information on how to set one up.

You don’t need huge amounts money, as the organisers explain: “The People’s Kitchen is an example to us all that many of the things that we want and need in life are already there around us, and don’t have to cost the world.”

The hardest part is finding a suitable kitchen that will be willing to accommodate you for free, but the team in Dalston found that many people will be willing to donate time, food and basic kitchen utensils or otherwise get involved if you present a compelling case.