City Harvest on a mission to rescue surplus food, drive out hunger in London

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Photo by Ivan Gonzalez

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City Harvest recently partnered with The London Produce Show and Conference and redistributed surplus food from exhibitors at Grosvenor House, Park Lane, picking up two tonnes of produce, which was served in meals the next day to more than 4,500 people.

8 am, Acton Park, London.

Four vans are loaded with packages of organic kale, gourmet parmesan blocks, ready-made meals from Whole Foods and lots of produce among other delicious items.

What looks like a special delivery for an order online is actually London’s daily surplus of food. It was also the scene at City Harvest’s depot on a recent Tuesday morning.

A charity that began in 2014, City Harvest helps put excess food to good use in a sustainable way, by distributing to organizations that feed the hungry. It picks up items from supermarkets like Morrisons, Marks and Spencer, Tesco, restaurants like Nando’s, gourmet stores such as Bayley & Sage, and wholesalers at New Covent Garden Market, among others, and redistributes to more than 170 organizations each week. 

On the white board this week: Lord's Cricket Ground, Hampton Court Flower ShowWimbledon Tennis, Pinewood Studios as well as an update of the gleaming numbers: “This week our team delivered food for 45,956 meals.”

City Harvest co-founder Laura Winningham, says, "We are very nimble. We are very responsive. We like to cooperate with everyone. We are like an ambulance service for food. People call us, and we go out and get it.

"We also have very hyper-local impact. In addition to being nimble, our team really understands the community and has enormous empathy. A lot of our team have experienced hunger and homelessness. So they have compassion."

EACH DAY, THOUSANDS OF MEALS

The willingness to deliver happens early, every day. Around the bustling City Harvest depot office, four staff members rally up to redistribute the spontaneous pickups that have been called in.

“Wimbledon has 47 salads ... got your security badge?” City Harvest's head of operations Paula Merrony calls out, while delegating the task.

“It’s the first time Wimbledon has called us," Merrony says. "We don’t know what to expect. No two days are the same here. It’s random and spontaneous. Last night, we were really running low on everything. Then we got a call from M&S. Their new store had a lot of stuff to give us. Also, a film shoot dismantled a pop-up corner shop and wanted a pickup. Suddenly, we were inundated with food and cleaning supplies and had to redistribute. Everything happens so quick. We have to be flexible here.”

Winningham adds, "We are getting more and more film shoots and photo shoots. They call us at the end of the day when they wrap up. Often it is the most beautiful food used on the shoot that used to get thrown out, but now they call us, and one of our vans will zip over and get it.”

The donations that come can be simple or incredibly complex, so the City Harvest staff must be prepared.

“We got a lot of bread yesterday," Merrony says. "But bread is tricky as some people can't eat bread. The bread is generally just too hard by the time it gets to us. ... We often get unusual fruit, veg and sauces donated that our charity partners aren’t familiar with, and our staff make a special effort to educate them on how best they can be used. Recently, we received tatsoi from a farm in Cambridge and we had to send the drivers out with instructions that it should be cooked like pak choi. We also recently needed a few recipes handed out with artichoke bottoms. We do a lot more than just distribute food.”

Merrony quickly paces through the storage facility, which reveals organic vegetables such kale, tomatoes and bananas, as well as plenty of other staple items. The produce is in excellent condition, perfectly edible and delicious.

EXTRAPIC

TIME FOR TAKE OFF

With vans loaded, it's time to go, and City Harvest takes to the streets to perform its mission.

The van does a loop around West London, picking up pastries from the Co-op, ready-made meals from Bayley & Sage in Parson’s Green and a box of goodies from Whole Foods on Kensington High Street.

Sometimes the dropoffs are straightforward, other times not quite as routine.

At one location, an unmarked storefront door leads straight into the dining room of Acton Homeless Concern, a drop-in day centre that provides advice and support for those in need, and that feeds about 250 people per day. It is hardly visible from the street yet, upon entering, the room boasts an astounding number of meals being prepared.

At another stopping off point, The Abbey Centre charity in south Westminster near some of the wealthiest households in the UK, chefs prepare beautiful meals for more than 80 people each week.

"The sheer proximity of pickups and drop off is quite eye-opening," Winningham says. "For example, right next to Whole Foods in Kensington – next to multimillion pounds houses – is a homeless shelter for battered women. You can’t tell any of this from the houses."

Thousands of Londoners go hungry every day, with more than 800 organizations set up for people in need. Is there enough food to go around? Probably. Is it happening? No.

But City Harvest is doing its part.

"Each week we have regular routes, collecting from more than 100 food donors and distributing to more than 200 charity partners," Winningham says. "We have all realized at City Harvest is that food is often a way to get people in from the streets, so that they can then be helped in other ways too."

After three hours, the van heads back to the depot in Acton.

PERFECTLY GOOD FOOD GOES UNUSED

How does perfectly good produce end up at City Harvest? 

“There are just so many reasons; labeling, over-ordering, mistakes, branding has gone pear-shaped," Winningham says. "We get a lot of fruit and veg from New Covent Garden Market, from the traders. They have to sell to restaurants so the produce can only be sold at a very high-quality stage. It has to be perfect. So their surplus often still looks very good but is passed its prime for the relationships they have.”

The pristine tomatoes reflect the growing issue around labeling. The display date label indicates July 1, which means they must be legally off the shelf by July 1. However, the best before date is July 6, and the use before date is July 10. This 5-10 day window where produce is still golden and delicious, but not sellable, provides a huge untapped opportunity for food redistribution. 

“Everyone is reevaluating the labeling issue, and we support any changes that reduce waste," Winningham says. "Additionally, we support efforts to prompt the government to feed people first. We think the government should set up a fund to offset the costs of charitable food redistribution. This would provide an incentive for businesses to send the thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible food to people in need. In fact, government subsidies currently incentivize the opposite; it is cheaper to send food to anaerobic digestion. With so much in-date surplus food going to anaerobic digestion, animal feed or even landfill, something must be done to help the millions of people in the UK experiencing food insecurity."

Another issue City Harvest has to deal with is popular food trends and items that have a short shelf life, which can make for challenging pickups and deliveries.

“For items like the zucchini pasta and shredded cauliflower that are big trends in the UK, we have to pick them up and redistribute them on the same night, if something is expiring that night," Winningham says. "We deliver to community projects who will use them in a meal that night. It will never be used after its use-by date. We follow the dates. We don’t want anyone to feel like they are getting second-rate food.”

DEVOTED FROM THE START

Winningham and her husband started City Harvest four years ago, with, as she describes, one guy driving around in a borrowed van picking up from Whole Foods and a couple of Nando's. It's working model now is a cohesive, organized on-demand service in London. 

“There was no depot until April 2017," she says. "Although we knew about the fundamental need for food rescue in cities around the world, we were testing the model in London in order to see how much food was available and how many charities they were out there to receive it. We were proving the model on a shoestring [budget]. ... We've just grown massively since then." 

Before that, getting food to the hungry people of London who required it wasn't easy.

“When we started this, it was really hard to find the places that truly need it," Winningham says. "If you Google “soup kitchen”, you find just a few places. It has taken a lot of work and research to find the right places.  

"There are many large ones feeding hundreds of people each day and also smaller programs, hidden and tucked around London. They are basically just individuals that have started heroically helping their community. For example, it can be one guy in a neighborhood that starts to realize that people are hungry, and that he could help. So what we do is that we bring him lots of healthy food, and he runs a foodbank on his estate. Those are the sort of relationships that keep us going. We keep finding these community heroes that are making a massive difference."


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CULTIVATING RELATIONSHIPS, RETAILERS

Getting various retailers on board has been a goal for City Harvest and one whose progress has been slow but steady.

“The growth has been bottom up and top down," Winningham says. "I’ve met with senior people at various food businesses like supermarkets and discussed their needs and their plans for food rescue. And at the same time, my team have met people at the stores and simply just asked what they are doing with their surplus. It has been a two-pronged approach.

“Each supermarket has a different strategy. Then that strategy has to be filtered down to the store level. There are frequent staff changes, so it’s hard to keep the lines clear. It takes a lot of work from City Harvest, even if we are assigned a store, to work with the individual stores to help them do the smartest things with their food.”

Just about every retailer, large and small, have jumped on board with City Harvest.

“Whole Foods, Morrisons and Marks & Spencer were our initial partners; Tesco, Lidl and Aldi came later," says Winningham. "Nando’s has been a key supporter from the start and very committed to end waste. Also Charlie Bighams who are based in Park Royal. They are making very high-quality, ready-made meals, and regularly call us to pick up the surplus. The company has also been a financial supporter and has donated a van to us. They really are a company that are not just saying it but are actually contributing actively.”

The diversity of partners has meant having to cultivate individual relationships. 

“Each relationship we have is bespoke," Winningham says. "So for example, our relationship with Morrisons is unique for each individual Morrisons store. Since we are making relationships with people on the floor there, this is an ever-changing dynamic, as staff changes. One of our roles is that we really spend a lot of time educating our partners, changing perceptions and introducing parameters about what food we can take. One of our premises is that this is not leftover food, for leftover people. We only distribute food that we ourselves would happily eat.”

THE FUTURE

To that end, City Harvest is committed to continuing those partnerships and ultimately ending hunger across London.

"Hopefully the number of people that need it will decline, and food waste will decline," Winningham says. "However, we are seeing a rising number of people that do need it. At the moment, we have a map of 800 possible places to deliver to and we can only deliver to 220 or so. Ideally if these people need food, we hope to grow enough to be able to cater to that. These places can be any non-profit organizations that serve the community. For example, a homeless hostel, an after-school program, a day center for the elderly. With more donated food and funding, we hope to help them all, and protect the environment from waste at the same time. 

“There will always be food surplus because the nature of the business is that you cannot run out of food if you are a supermarket. So as long as we provide a great, responsive, logistic service for food surplus and get it to the right people at the right places, we are on the right trajectory. We want to get any surplus food to the right people that need it." 

CITY HARVEST BY THE NUMBERS

According to co-founder Laura Winningham, one City Harvest van can pick up more than 100 tons of food per year. That equates to approximately 200,000 meals. "City Harvest ticks a lot of boxes for people trying to make a local impact and a very clear impact," she says of those who donate. "Their contributions go directly into paying drivers and keeping vans on the road." The overall numbers paint a picture of the volume of food City Harvest rescues and delivers:  

1043 Tonnes of surplus food rescued to date.
2,425,000 meals distributed to date.
20 Tonnes of food rescued and redistributed per week.
1,000 Meals each van delivers in a day.
3 million Meals served in the life of each of our vans.
220 Organisations we deliver food to each week.

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