Saving grace: The Felix Project rescues food and changes lives in process

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Project Coordinator Anne Elkins of The Felix Project

The Felix Project has revolutionized the British food waste conundrum, providing more than one million meals per year around the UK, based on produce waste that has either passed its shelf life or does not meet market specifications.

Founded in 2016 by the Evening Standard chairman, Justin Byam Shaw, in memory of his son, the United Kingdom charitable organization has grown exponentially in the past year, with a straightforward model that essentially saves surplus food from suppliers and redistributes it to charities. 

Suppliers include Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, HelloFresh, Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges, Pret a Manger, Whole Foods, MASH and many more. Corporate backers include Uber, D&D Restaurants and Citibank.

Produce Business UK met face to face with Project Coordinator Anne Elkins of The Felix Project, one of this year's exhibitors at The London Produce Show and Conference, to learn about the charity’s extensive projects and development.

How would you describe the work of The Felix Project?

The Felix Project is a charity founded in 2016 by the parents of a young boy who died suddenly of a rare strain of meningitis. We collect surplus food from a variety of food suppliers (supermarkets, wholesalers, cafes, farms etc.) and, after ensuring it is of a quality high enough to be used, deliver it to charities and schools across London. The charities and schools we deliver to use the food to cook meals, provide snacks and food parcels or make it available on market stalls for pupils and their families to take home to enjoy.

Your website claims that “We’re saving food and changing lives.” Could you elaborate on this:

Each year the UK food industry generates 1.9 million tonnes of avoidable food waste, which equates to £4.5bn worth of food. If this food is not diverted for human consumption, it is either incinerated, sent to be made in to animal feed, sent to anaerobic digestion or sent to landfill. There are high levels of food poverty in London and thousands of charities who are supporting the vulnerable in our city that are struggling for funding. By redistributing food that would otherwise go to waste to charities and schools, we are saving food and supporting schools and charities to change lives. Since we do not charge for our deliveries, we are also saving charities money that they can divert to other areas of their services. 

What sort of food is typically wasted? Do you see any trends in that? Have more foods or certain food become more perishable in recent times? 

We receive a wide variety or produce – fresh vegetables and fruit, bakery items, tins, packets, jars, prepared meals, sandwiches. Any food item you can think of has probably come through our warehouse! We even redistribute flowers, plants, household items and dog/cat food and litter. 

That being said, the foods we receive in the highest quantities are bread and other bakery items, as well as bananas. Actually, wouldn’t it be great if somebody could combine these two to produce a banana bread product made from surplus ingredients. Anybody out there??!

Well, that’s certainly worth a shout out! And what about farm pickups? What do you usually find there? 

In recent months we have collected potatoes, leeks, apples, oranges, spring greens and broccoli directly from farms. Most of this has been collected in conjunction with the Gleaning Network.

What about retail stores?

From retail stores, we pick up a wide variety of produce, from a packet of cereal that has been dented, to a multi-pack of oranges where one piece of fruit has mould on it (but the others are fine); from a pack of cheese whose label has partly come off to a bag of spinach that has a tiny tear in the packaging. As long as the produce has been stored correctly, has not been at risk of cross-contamination and is still within its use by date, we know a charity or school that can put it to good use! 

Are you focused on collecting anything in particular? 

Our charities particularly love the fresh fruit and vegetables that we deliver to them, so we are always keen for more of this.

Let’s talk about Felix Food Bags for schools. What a great initiative. How did this come about?

Since The Felix Project started in 2016, the majority of the food we deliver has been going to charities. Knowing that 37% of London school-age children live below the poverty line and knowing that poor nutrition is a barrier to concentration, learning and development, we wanted to do something more meaningful in schools in our city. We trialled our Schools Programme in December 2017 with two schools in Ealing. Free of charge, these schools receive a weekly delivery of healthy produce that is made available to pupils and their families on a market stall for them to take home and enjoy. 

We are now rolling out our Schools programme to more schools in North and West London. The schools taking part are so grateful and I am already hearing wonderful stories of all the ways the food is making a difference. It is a wonderful thing to be able to provide (and we couldn’t do it without our suppliers!).

What would you say is your main service now in 2018?  How has this evolved over the years?

We now have 11 vans (soon to be 18, thanks to Renault!), two warehouses, a Central London evening operation and our Schools Programme. In April 2018, we delivered to charities/schools 1,121 times and carried out 1,066 collections from our suppliers. Our ‘main’ service is still our delivery of food to charities across London, but no one service/operation is more important than the other.

You have a large list of suppliers. Are there any particular stories from any of the suppliers? Do you find any suppliers changing their waste habits?

Most supermarkets are doing their bit to reduce food waste, and we have seen reductions in the amount of food we collect from some of them as a result of this. There is still a lot to achieve, but I believe we are heading in the right direction.

Some of our suppliers do go the extra mile for us. For example, the amount of bread we collect from Paul was too much for us to redistribute so they started turning it in to bread pudding for us. Our charities in West London now receive freshly made bread pudding every day!

Some of our suppliers also fundraise for us, which of course, as a charity run 100 per cent on donations, we are extremely grateful for. Others have donated vans, e.g. Fortnum and Mason.

Has the food snacking trend of eating cut fruit for example created more, or less waste in produce?

The problem here is that pre-prepared fruit and veg has a use by date on it, so if a shop cannot sell the produce on the day, it either has to be delivered to a charity after the shop’s closing time or it will go to waste. Our Central London evening operation collects food in the evenings directly from suppliers such as Eat, Pod, Coco di Mama and delivers that food directly to charities. We are working hard with suppliers to make sure that as much food as possible goes directly to a good place, and we now have volunteers collecting food on foot, on bicycles and in electric vans. 

Let’s talk about the farms in Kent? What sort of food is being wasted there? If the food is not sellable, how is it edible?

We have collected produce that would otherwise have gone to waste from several farms in Kent, much of it thanks to our friends at The Gleaning Network. The produce is going to waste for cosmetic reasons. For example, apples that are not quite the right shade of red or potatoes that are the wrong size (too big/too small) or because it’s considered a poorer grade but often tastes exactly the same as Grade A produce, if not better, due to the freshness and being allowed to ripen naturally on a tree in the field instead of being picked early. Most retailers require fruit that will store for many months so it is picked long before ripe.

Often, the price farmers can demand for lower-grade produce is not worth the cost of harvesting. We have redistributed leeks that were just beginning to flower, spring greens, kale and purple sprouting broccoli that was all a little too close to flower burst for buyers to accept them but perfectly good to eat and potatoes that were the ‘wrong’ size.

Finally, let’s talk about The London Produce Show and Conference. Is it your first time exhibiting there? What do you expect from the show? What can people expect from you?

It is our first time at The London Produce Show and we’re really excited! To be able to spread the word amongst suppliers and give everybody the opportunity to reduce their waste is really wonderful. We are hoping to meet lots of people we may be able to support. Please come and find us!

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