A charity that turns surplus food into meals for hungry people has had to adapt to the lockdown, as one volunteer explains
Laura Salmon, 31, from Norwood Junction, London, is a volunteer at Food Cycle, which turns surplus food destined for landfill into healthy meals for hungry people. Here she tells Positive News about her volunteering shifts and how the charity is helping out during the pandemic.
“Walking through the doors of the school canteen where I volunteer on Friday evenings, I’m met with echoing silence. Normally, the space would be filled with other Food Cycle volunteers and perhaps a few early guests. Lockdown has closed the school and the kitchen – but there are still mouths to feed and food to save from going to waste.
“I’ve been volunteering for 18 months, hooked since my first shift. It’s a simple premise: there are 8 million people in the UK who don’t get enough to eat, yet 12m tonnes of food are wasted each year. Using surplus food from supermarkets and grocery shops, which would otherwise have been binned, Food Cycle provides hot, three-course meals for anyone who wants one.
“I quickly realised the project is about much more than food – it’s about the people. Many of our guests are lonely, and having a place to go on a Friday night for a hot dinner and some friendly company can have a huge impact.
“The last dinner before lockdown was eerily quiet. A lot of our guests are elderly or have health conditions, which make them more vulnerable to coronavirus, but the empty tables were tough to swallow. It felt like many guests needed the service now more than ever, but had to stay away.
“I’ve got to know some of the guests pretty well in the last 18 months. There are food-poor families who bring along their children for smaller portions and a side of ketchup with everything. There are the older people, who for much of the week exist on sandwiches or a ready meal. Sometimes, guests will tell us that it’s the first cooked or healthy meal they’ve had that week. Once, a guest told me the meal was the first thing he’d eaten in days.
“Stories like that are hard to hear, but I’m just glad to do my bit to help however I can. We have a lot of fun volunteering: it feels a bit like Ready, Steady, Cook, trying to plan a meal from whatever donations we’ve received that day. I enjoy sitting down to eat with the guests for a chat about our weeks. There’s one regular who has a running score system, and likes to say cheeky things like, ‘Your soup was a seven last week, Laura. But this week it’s a nine.’
“When the lockdown happened, Food Cycle quickly made a plan to continue supporting some of the most vulnerable people in the community. Now, instead of cooking, my Friday evening shifts involve packaging the donations into food parcels, which are then delivered to the registered guests.
“As soon as I walk through the door, I wash my hands thoroughly, as I know the parcels may be going out to guests with pre-existing conditions. It’s just me and one other volunteer, Ruth – we’ve buddied up to always work together, thereby minimising the number of people we’re exposing ourselves to outside the home, though we keep two metres apart as much as we can. I also drive to the school hall, so I don’t have to risk public transport.
“Ruth and I set to work sorting through the crates of donations that have arrived earlier in the day. We get all sorts of fresh produce donated – as well as fruit and veg, we’ve had treats like hot cross buns, packaged meals and smoothies.
It feels like Ready, Steady, Cook – trying to plan a meal from whatever donations we’ve received
“Although my husband is a brilliant lockdown partner, I relish the time out of the house and it’s nice to see someone else once a week. While I pack the biodegradable bags, I think about the guests that will receive them. The feedback we’ve had from the recipients has been amazing, and it’s great to know how much of a difference it’s making to people. One guest’s recent note really moved me: ‘Receiving the package made me feel so cared for that I almost cried. I don’t meet any of the government official ‘vulnerable’ criteria even though I have fairly high support needs. I’m very glad not to be forgotten.’
“The volunteer drivers arrive at staggered times to maintain social distancing, and each of them takes about 15 parcels to guests in the area. We’re sending about 50 packages each shift, and feeding about a 100 people a week in south-east London. In the 43 locations up and down the country, we’ve managed to send out more than 5,000 food parcels.
“The shift doesn’t take more than a couple of hours, but I’m knackered by the end of it – it’s like a workout. Covid-19 has brought so much fear and uncertainty to so many people, and I feel very lucky to be healthy and still being paid a salary for my marketing job. I’m really glad to have a way to help others in a positive way.”
To help support the work of Food Cycle, visit the charity’s website