I’m studying a packet of spinach. Close inspection reveals that it goes off in a few days time, but other than that it looks fine to me. I’m also desperately trying to find fault with a crate of apples and half a dozen bunches of bananas, something to justify why they have ended up here at the Pie in the Sky café at the Bromley by Bow Centre. At a push, I’d say some of the bananas have gone a bit brown. Like 20 to 40 per cent of all fruit and veg in Britain, they were rejected long before they got anywhere near a supermarket shelf, contributing to the 400,000 tonnes of fresh produce that food retailers throw away each year.
At this FoodCycle-run café, they will form the basis of the lunchtime service. I’ll be cooking a colossal pot of roast pepper and tomato soup, but there is also a cauliflower curry, baked potatoes with a light, yoghurt-based coleslaw, dense banana cake and healthy wraps. Made from donations by supermarkets, farmers’ markets and wholesalers, the menu consists predominantly of food that was deemed unsellable—either because retailers overbought or because, as discerning customers, we don’t like our carrots wonky or our pumpkins patchy.
The ingredients for my soup have come from a local supermarket. We also have a delivery from a supplier fondly known by staff and volunteers as “the cheeseman.” He contributes anything from wheels of brie to gloopy nougat spread, which is folded into batter to make sticky, nutty buns. While he may not be able to sell a goat’s cheese bûche due to expire next week, FoodCycle can put it on their cheese plate today.
Station House in Haringey, another FoodCycle community café, has been operating for just over a year. Open on Fridays, a three-course meal costs about £5. In the summer, there is seating next to an impressive allotment (great for when the supermarket suppliers don’t come up with the goods). In winter, the café is based in the adjacent bunting-clad hall owned by mental health charity Mind. Fundraising officer Steven Hawkes explains that, although FoodCycle volunteers come from all walks of life, both cafés try to provide opportunities for people who want to develop new skills, build confidence or go on to further employment. That could mean mental health service users in Haringey or people referred by the employment service at the Bromley by Bow Centre.
FoodCycle is not just about tackling food waste. The organization is also concerned with poor nutrition. “The two things happen at once,” says Louise Mousseau, FoodCycle’s operations officer. “I think that’s something that people find quite hard to get their heads round. We think the whole problem is centred around the co-existence of food waste, food poverty, food inequality, bad diets…This is all part of the same problem.”
Three million people in the UK are now affected by food poverty. So far FoodCycle’s campaigns have led the publication of TweetPie—a collection of 140-character recipes, which claims to be the world’s shortest recipe book—and a heroic part in Feeding the 5,000 in Trafalgar Square earlier this month. In fact, 5,300 people at the event ate vegetarian curry made entirely from reclaimed food while listening to speakers including mayor Boris Johnson. Funding permitting, they would like to add to their 12 volunteer-led “hubs” across the country, providing infrastructure and training. National domination might take some time.
Steffi Dellner writes the blog Always So Hungry from her East End kitchen
More: How I’m going to feed the 5,000 – Waste is a huge problem that is easily solved by eating food, not chucking it away, says Tristram Stuart