Interview with Steven Hawkes from Foodcycle

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Foodcycle community cafe

What is Foodcycle?

  • A charity that takes surplus food and kitchen space that is otherwise going unused to create meals
  • Meals are given to people who are at risk of food poverty or social isolation
  • The first Foodcycle meal was served on May 10th, 2009
Foodcycle Manchester

Awards won by Foodcycle

  • The Charity Times New Charity award, 2010
  • The Prime Minister’s Big Society Award, 2011
  • The Climate Week Community Initiative award, 2014

Foodcycle volunteers

What can I learn?

  • The importance of engaging with vulnerable members of society in different ways
  • How being open to new partnerships can help your organisation grow
  • The advantages of being a small operation
  • The power of word of mouth

For those who don’t know, could you give us a little bit of information around what it is Foodcycle does, and your role within the organisation?

FoodCycle is a UK charity that combines volunteers, surplus food and spare kitchen spaces to create nutritious meals for people at risk from food poverty and social isolation. We run 20 volunteer-powered community projects across the UK, reclaiming food that would otherwise be wasted from retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, and using these ingredients to cook healthy and delicious meals for those in need.

Our volunteers collect these ingredients just a few hours before serving a three-course meal for around 40 people so it’s always a challenge, and we have to Foodcycle partnershipsmake the most of whatever surplus we get from retailers that week. There are some things we almost always get (bananas, salad leaves, bread) but most ingredients will be totally unpredictable: from a sack of potatoes and a glut of mushrooms one week to kilograms of aubergines and lemons the next! Because of this our volunteers need to be creative and resourceful in the kitchen – it’s a bit like Ready, Steady, Cook but on a much bigger scale! Of course we do encourage volunteers to buy some ingredients: often pasta, rice, lentils, or dairy products to make sure the meals we’re serving are as tasty, balanced and nutritious as possible.

We serve FoodCycle meals to people at risk from food poverty and social isolation, which in practice means that we build a partnership with a local community group working with vulnerable individuals. For example, our Islington Hub works with the local MIND centre and serves to people affected by mental health issues, and our Leeds Hub works with refugees and asylum seekers at a local community centre.

As well as the immediate benefit of a healthy meal, many FoodCycle service users really value the social side of our meal. For people that live alone this might be the only time in the week that they get the opportunity to sit down and eat with others.

An estimated 15 million tonnes of food wasted in Britain from the plough to the plate, and if we stopped wasting food in the UK it would be the CO2 equivalent of taking 1 in 4 cars off the road. Meanwhile 4 million people in the UK are affected by food poverty and over 900,000 people are reliant on emergency food provision.

Smaller organisations like us also have such a great capacity to be responsive and adapt quickly – we don’t have to get sign off from loads of different people or go through layers of bureaucracy so we have the potential to be more innovative than some larger organisations.

Last year our network of 1200 volunteers served over 31,000 meals and reclaimed over 35,000 kg of surplus food. 73% of our beneficiaries have reported eating more fruit and veg since eating at a FoodCycle Hub and 85% make friends and feel more a part of the community.

Since we started cooking in May 2009 we have served over 107,000 meals and reclaimed over 126,000kg of surplus food – the equivalent of saving 567,000kg in CO2 emissions.

With rising food prices, stagnating wages, and benefits changes, we are seeing more and more people at risk of food poverty across the UK. We know the need is out there and we want to be there in communities where our model can help.

And what inspired the start of Foodcycle?

The idea of FoodCycle came about in 2008 from Kelvin Cheung, who was inspired by a US initiative called the Campus Kitchens Project. He saw the scale of ‘surplus’ food (perfectly edible food that would otherwise go to waste) as an opportunity to help both people and the environment.

The 10th May 2009 will always be remembered as the pivotal day in FoodCycle’s history – the very first meal we served. After six months of getting the key ingredients of surplus food, Foodcycle Donationsvolunteers and a kitchen together, it was game on. The surplus food for that first session came from a couple of willing stallholders at Chapel Market in Islington, London (all produce that would have otherwise been thrown away). The volunteers came from a few free ads online, and the space from the Fleet River Bakery – after many rejections from people afraid we would burn down their kitchen! We served a two-course meal for the Choir With No Name, a group of people affected by homelessness and others on the edges of society. As with many of the thousands of people we work with now, it had been a while since any of them had eaten a meal cooked from fresh ingredients, enjoyed in a friendly and welcoming environment.

It started out as a group of university students in London who came together because they all believed in a simple vision – that no good food should be wasted and that everyone should have access to a nutritious home cooked meal around a table. Within a few months of that first cooking session, we received lots of interest from people wanting to volunteer, from potential new funders, and from other charities wanting to get involved. It was just a bunch of young people having fun in a kitchen back in May 2009 but little did we know we were on to something much bigger – we were at the beginning of a whole movement.

From a logistical point of view, the operation sounds incredibly impressive – what are some of the hurdles that you’ve had to overcome to get this network in place?

All sorts really! To start with it was a challenge to convince retailers to donate their surplus food and to start new partnerships with charities and community centres. We’ve learnt a lot over the last five years and now have a much more robust expansion model of social franchising.

“Volunteers are always willing. They will always give you 10 minutes to get something off your chest.”

Paul, Durham Hub service user

FoodCycle manages national relationships with supermarkets and we have agreed systems to safely use their surplus food to ensure that no good food is wasted. Working with community partners, we provide a package of support, including training, online systems, marketing and access to support and training at our annual Hub Leader Conference. This is followed by regular support to ensure that Hubs are sustainable, of high quality and capable of delivering real social impact.

What kind of organisations help out with the surplus? How did you get them involved?

We work with most of the major supermarkets and Sainsburys in particular have been great supporters of FoodCycle for years now. We’ve always approached supermarkets by making it clear what we do and how we’d use their surplus to benefit the surrounding community. We’ve built up a sense of trust – they know we’ll turn up at the same time each week – and they also know that our volunteers are trained in food safety and we have insurance for all our activities. For us it’s about making it as difficult as possible for them to say no and as easy as possible for them to give us their surplus food!

If the staff in the local branch are on board and enthusiastic then this makes a huge difference – we’ve had some even come and volunteer to see how they’re store is helping. As well as this we also work with a number of smaller independents, local retailer and markets and many of these are brilliant supporters of our projects.

One of the main problems that we have found many charities have is community outreach, and making sure people know about there services – how did FoodCycle tackle this?

Word of mouth has always been the most powerful way for us. For example in Manchester a man affected by homelessness came in once and then the next week he came along with five others who were in similar situations. If someone values the meal and company then they’re likely to tell others. We also do local marketing by getting in touch with nearby charities, community centres and places like sheltered accommodation for older people. This might be just having a poster up in their foyer or a stack of flyers on a table – so it’s not intrusive but if someone needs our service then they know where we are.

Your growth over the past few years has been enormous – what has been the secret behind it? Are there any tips you’d be able to pass on to smaller organisations who are looking to scale up?

Foodcycle cateringBe open to working in partnership and developing things as you go along. Nothing is perfect to start with but we’ve improved year on year since we started out – things like our training for volunteers and our relationships with supermarkets are always improving as we learn what works and what doesn’t. Smaller organisations like us also have such a great capacity to be responsive and adapt quickly – we don’t have to get sign off from loads of different people or go through layers of bureaucracy so we have the potential to be more innovative than some larger organisations.

What have you got planned for the future? Any major events or projects that we should look out for?

We’re expanding our Hubs using the new social franchise model described above and hope to launch 8 new Hubs next year. We’re currently in talks with a number of different charities and community organisations about this but are still open to new partnerships so we encourage anyone interested to get in touch with us! We’re also looking to develop our Community Café employability programme and ensure our voice is heard on the issues of food waste, food poverty, and community cohesion. For example we’re currently running a campaign called FoodCycle’s Breadline Challenge to raise awareness of the shocking increase in UK food poverty over the last few years and also to raise vital funds for our projects. (

And if anyone wants to get involved with volunteering or donating, whats the way to go about it?

  1. Volunteer

All our projects are volunteer-led and we are supported by over 1,200 amazing volunteers across the country. Find out if there’s a FoodCycle Hub local to you here and simply sign up online to volunteer.

  1. Donate

With your help, we can make sure that food waste and food poverty no longer co-exist in our communities. Just £10 is enough for us to buy the extra ingredients needed for a three-course meal for around 50 people who are struggling to get by – please donate today.

  1. Fundraise

There are all sorts of ways to support FoodCycle through fundraising – from marathons and cycling events to foodie fundraising dinners and bake sales. We have plenty more ideas for you right here!

“I heard about FoodCycle and came with my late husband. Since he has died I don‘t like to cook just for myself, so this is perfect and I am grateful… no matter who you are you are always made to feel welcome.”

Virginia, 87-year old service user at FoodCycle Cambridge