FoodCycle

16/10/2015

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I first heard about FoodCycle online; I was thinking about making a career change and wanted to get some volunteering experience under my belt – and there was FoodCycle.  There are 19 FoodCycles around the country that take surplus food from supermarkets and other local retailers, and turn them into meals for people at risk of food poverty and social isolation.  I’ve been volunteering with them for two and a half years now, and I’ve seen quite a few changes even over that short time – we’ve been getting a lot better known around Cambridge recently, and started doing more things like catering for events. Lots of exciting changes!  We cook a three course vegetarian lunch from 12 every Saturday, open to anybody for a suggested donation of £2, and earlier this year we also started cooking an evening meal for families on the first and third Wednesday of each month from 6 at Barnwell Baptist Church on Howard Road.

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I’ve got some really great memories of volunteering at FoodCycle – it’s been particularly great this year getting more families and young children coming along to our meals. Just this last weekend, someone said to me how amazed she was that her daughter actually sat down at a table with other people and ate her bright pink beetroot, parsnip and apple soup. That’s what it’s all about for me. That and seeing new volunteers growing in confidence and learning new skills, especially some of the supported volunteers we’ve been working with recently.

From its beginning as a very student-based organisation, the range of volunteers we get has really diversified, especially over the last year – we’ve had people doing their D of E awards with us, right up to people well into retirement.  No cooking skills are needed, just an enthusiasm for tackling food waste and eating together! A couple of our volunteers are trained chefs, but that’s definitely not the norm and we have people who’ve never chopped a vegetable before in their lives. That soon changes, because if there’s one thing about FoodCycle it’s that there’s a lot of fruit and veg chopping. When we catered for a former hub leader’s wedding recently, one of our volunteers heroically made her way through 20kg of tomatoes that were destined for a panzanella. People can volunteer outside of the kitchen too – we are always looking for people to help us publicise what we do, and also to act as front of house, greeting our regulars, and chatting to them over a cup of tea.  Although I love cooking, and can often be found in the kitchen, this is actually my favourite part of volunteering with FoodCycle – the sense of community. I’ve got to know quite a few of the regulars well over time and it’s like greeting old friends every week.

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We pick up our food from Sainsbury’s every Friday afternoon (or a Tuesday for the Barnwell meal), and it’s cycled up to St Paul’s by the lovely people at Outspoken, with a quick stop at the Farmers Outlet on Lensfield Road on the way. Other donations, from the food bank, other local retailers and even allotmenteers arrive throughout the week. The person leading the cooking will then take a look at what’s available, and think up a three course vegetarian menu.  We have up to £10 per meal to spend on additional ingredients, although we try and keep this to a minimum and have worked hard at finding additional suppliers, particularly of expensive items like cheese and eggs. It just seemed silly to us to buy eggs when over 1 million of them are thrown away each day in the UK! A team of 5 volunteers then start cooking at 9.30 on a Saturday morning, with everyone chipping in with menu ideas, and by 12.30 we’re dishing up. Our front of house team arrive at 11.30 to lay the tables and generally make sure everything’s ship-shape – they also get the fun job of washing up afterwards!

Although the Wednesday and Saturday meals are the main focus of our week, there’s a lot of work behind the scenes too – for example, each hub has to raise a minimum of £2500 each year, so we are always looking for new ideas and opportunities there. There’s also keeping up with our Facebook and Twitter accounts, getting involved in a spot of food photography, marketing (for example, producing a brochure for our new catering venture) – and lots more besides. Specifically at the moment we are looking for two fundraising and events coordinators and also someone to head up our surplus food collection, making sure that we have enough volunteers for this and making contact with new sources, as well as maintaining relationships with our existing community partners. We are also working on a food waste recipe book, and would love to hear from anyone with design skills.

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We have around seven hub leaders at the moment – it’s important to all work as a team, so that it doesn’t all fall to one or two people.  But we’re pretty good at that, and I feel like we have a really wide range of skills – doesn’t mean some fresh faces wouldn’t be very welcome!  Realising the sheer scale of food waste and food poverty can be very frustrating at times; there’s a limit to what we can do, even though we could cook every day if we had enough time, volunteers and available spaces.  There’s certainly the need for these community meals – it makes me so angry that we are producing may more than enough food for people to eat, yet there are still people going hungry.  We have a food bank here at St Paul’s and I often find myself inviting their clients to Saturday lunch – but what do they do for the rest of the week? And what about the people not accessing food banks – what do they do? You can feel quite inadequate sometimes, but then you see people eating together and enjoying a good meal and it reminds you why you do it.

I think my friends and family are a bit bemused about my passion for FoodCycle, although they think it’s a great charity – if I get involved in something, I tend to give it 110%, which they’re probably used to by now.  In fact, I’ve had a few friends volunteer themselves as a result.  And it’s great to see friends’ kids getting involved – one friend is bringing her eight year old daughter along at the end of the month to help out, planning the menu and serving the food (unfortunately she’s too young to be in the kitchen). It’s so great to see people that young building an awareness of food waste – it’s the only chance we have of tackling this head on, if people start educating themselves.

Most recently, we’ve been very involved in organising the Cambridge Pumpkin Festival – a city-wide programme of events from 23rd October to 7th November. There’s something for everyone, and a lot of the events are specifically aimed at families and are free.  FoodCycle are hosting two pop-up restaurants at St Paul’s on Sunday 25th October (7-9) and Friday 6th November (7-9). Tickets are free, and you just pay what you think the meal was worth on the night.  We’ve already designed the all-pumpkin menus and are starting to get really excited about these – something a little different from what we do normally, but still a great way to highlight the food waste message (we’re using the whole pumpkin, from the skin to the seeds). We’re also helping organise Cambridge’s first ever Disco Soup! If you’d like more information on the festival you can pick up a brochure from various outlets such as Arjuna, St Paul’s and the library, or take a look at www.cambridgesustainablefood.org. Tickets for FoodCycle’s Pumpkin Pop-Ups are available at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/pips-pumpkin-pop-up-tickets-18174230613 (reservation is essential).

If you’ve not done much volunteering before, or perhaps you’re lacking in confidence, I’d still encourage you to come along and try FoodCycle out, or drop me a line [email protected] . None of us are experts, and we’re all learning together! Sometimes I suggest to people that they come along to one of our meals and see what goes on, and where they think they’d like to help – it can certainly be a bit full on to be plunged head first into the whirlwind that is the St Paul’s kitchen on a Saturday morning, and people need to get involved at their own pace.  There’s no minimum time commitment – you can volunteer as much or as little as you want, and do what you feel comfortable with.  You won’t regret it. I certainly haven’t looked back since getting involved with FoodCycle and have learned so much – from the other volunteers, but especially the guests.
If you’ve not done much volunteering before, or perhaps you’re lacking in confidence, I’d still encourage you to come along and try FoodCycle out, or drop me a line [email protected] . None of us are experts, and we’re all learning together! Sometimes I suggest to people that they come along to one of our meals and see what goes on, and where they think they’d like to help – it can certainly be a bit full on to be plunged head first into the whirlwind that is the St Paul’s kitchen on a Saturday morning, and people need to get involved at their own pace.  There’s no minimum time commitment – you can volunteer as much or as little as you want, and do what you feel comfortable with.  You won’t regret it. I certainly haven’t looked back since getting involved with FoodCycle and have learned so much – from the other volunteers, but especially the guests.

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My ultimate ambition for FoodCycle? Well, in one way it’d be for it not to exist I suppose – for us to have a better food production and distribution system that eliminated waste.  That’s probably a pipe dream though, and we’d also miss what I think is the most important aspect of FoodCycle – sitting down round the table and eating together. So for now, I’d want to see FoodCycle Cambridge grow and go from strength to strength, getting more families coming to eat with us regularly and expanding into other areas of the city, especially north Cambridge.

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