“It was over by that statue,” Lindsay Boswell tells me—gesturing past a Trafalgar Square bronze lion—that he gave Boris Johnson “a particularly rude-looking carrot.”
Boswell is showing me where he met the prime minister, then London mayor, at a 2011 event co-organised by FareShare, the food waste redistribution charity. Boswell, the charity’s chief executive, shows me where they erected makeshift kitchens to feed the public on reclaimed grub. He points out where they constructed an orange pyramid from thousands of wonky carrots to raise awareness about, by their estimates, the UK’s two million tonnes of annual edible food surplus.
Boswell’s gift to Johnson “was fairly phallic,” he says, when we arrive at the site of the exchange, which photographers dutifully captured. “He was laughing… I knew he had a pretty puerile sense of humour.”
These days, Boswell is embarrassing Johnson in other ways. The UK’s record on food waste ranks a measly 22nd out of 78 countries, according to last year’s Food Sustainability Index. FareShare is asking for £5m a year from Johnson’s government to help it claw back 25 per cent of edible surplus food from manufacturing and retail. The carrots, potatoes, cabbages and other produce passing through FareShare’s network of 30 warehouses eventually ends up at food banks and community centres nationwide. Some of those vegetables make their way to where we meet—at St Martin-in-the-Fields church near the square, which runs a soup kitchen.
Boswell, 62, who arrives in an olive-green cap and skiing windbreaker at the church’s brick-vaulted café, took over FareShare in 2010. Before the pandemic, he was typing up the minutes of boardroom meetings himself, and FareShare was providing about one million meals to vulnerable people each week. At the height of lockdown, it was three and a half million meals, falling to about two million now. Boswell no longer types up meetings.
When Covid hit, FareShare scrambled to change the way it provided food. Delivery shifted from lunch clubs to doorsteps. Boswell remembers switching into a battle-zone mentality he learned during nine years in the British Army, with postings ranging from Northern Ireland to Beirut. “My wife has always said I’m never happier than when there’s a crisis,” he says.
The change wasn’t just to how FareShare’s food was delivered, but who was eating it. Food banks went from being one-tenth of FareShare’s clients to around one-half. The challenge now is “recalibrating back,” Boswell says. “In a way, we need to wean those charities off handing out food boxes.” He says FareShare’s purpose is unlocking environmental benefits—the charity redistributed about 55,000 tonnes of food waste last financial year, over double the total of the year before—while providing social goods along the way. “It’s not our job to solve poverty or child hunger.”
It’s here critics take aim at FareShare. There are nine million food-insecure UK households, and a UN investigator found the British state has been “deliberately gutted” in recent years. Meanwhile, FareShare takes government money—£30m last financial year, 42 per cent of its income—to funnel vegetables to food banks. Some charities accuse FareShare, in “conflating food waste with food poverty,” of helping entrench a charity-based approach to poverty reduction.
And FareShare drew heat for bucking a trend last autumn. Unlike most food banks and poverty charities, or FareShare ambassador Marcus Rashford, or even Iain Duncan Smith, FareShare did not oppose the £1,040-a-year real-terms cut to universal credit. “That’s not our area of expertise,” Boswell says. “What I know about universal credit could be written on a postcard.” He adds: “we can’t afford ourselves the luxury of being a Don Quixote and going in to tilt at every windmill of injustice that’s out there.” They pick their battles.
After a hectic pandemic, food helps Boswell unplug from stress and criticism. He grows asparagus, courgettes and corn in his back garden. “You boil the water, go outside and pick a corn on the cob,” he says. “Because it’s so fresh, it hardly needs any cooking—that is a transformational experience [compared] to a corn on the cob from a supermarket.”