Day 35: FoodCycle Cambridge

I have vivid memories of being a young girl growing up in the affluent city of Cambridge, not being able to understand why there were so many people sleeping rough, barely surviving. It didn’t seem right or fair, and that helpless feeling stays with me today. That childhood memory, and what I’ve subsequently learned about the plight of the homeless and the disadvantaged, along with an inherent aversion to food waste, compelled me to attend my first FoodCycle session in 2012. 

After a break from volunteering while our children were very young, I rejoined the team in September 2017 for Day 35 of #100DaysNoTV.

what is foodcycle?

FoodCycle is an award-winning charity that helps to build communities by reclaiming perfectly edible surplus food from supermarkets and local food retailers, turning it into healthy, nutritious meals for local people. These are served in a communal dining room where the guests can enjoy their food with some company, conversation and warmth – in all senses of the word.

In the UK, it’s estimated that around 4 million people are affected by food poverty. According to FoodCycle, ‘Each year, the UK food retail industry sends 1.6 million tonnes of food to landfill, a quarter of which is estimated as still being fit for consumption.’

The first FoodCycle cooking session was back in May 2009. The charity has come a long way since then. Today, there are 35 volunteer-powered community projects all over England. My local hub, Cambridge, runs three projects: central Cambridge, Arbury and Barnwell.

Guests come from many different backgrounds: they may be socially isolated, affected by homelessness, experiencing food poverty. No-one is judged, no questions are asked. Everybody is welcome at a FoodCycle community meal.

How does it work?

On the evening before a community meal, a group of FoodCycle volunteers will visit local supermarkets and independent food retailers – with whom they have an established relationship – to collect safe & edible food that would otherwise be thrown away.

The cooking team leaders will then devise a three-course menu to maximise the use of these ingredients. I find that so impressive! I don’t think I could look at piles of food and see such meal potential. Hats off to these guys. 🙂

Venues used by FoodCycle are often community centres or churches: somewhere that has spare kitchen space with a connecting room for a dining area with tables & chairs.

The central Cambridge project meets at Wesley Methodist Church every Saturday, for a lunch served from 12.30pm. In their words, ‘Our meals are cooked with love for people affected by food poverty and anyone who cares about food waste.’ Guests don’t need to book, the meals are free, and absolutely everyone is welcome.

what’s on the menu?

On the eve of my FoodCycle session, a massive 159kg of food was collected and, on top of this, a 5kg block of vegan chocolate and 12kg of biscuit crumbs had been donated from local retailers!

Our cooking team leader was Vic, and she was shadowed by Ian, who will become a leader in the near future. Together, they devised the impressive menu below.

I arrived at Wesley Methodist Church at 9.30am on Saturday morning, and met the rest of the cooking team – there were seven of us in total. We were given a quick talk about the menu, a health & safety briefing and then we got started on our assigned tasks.

As you might expect, there was a LOT of chopping to do. So much beautiful veg to go in the soup, the veg & bean one pot and the side salad. When you’re involved in something like this, it really drives home just how much perfectly good food goes to waste every day.

Within the kitchen space, FoodCycle has its own permanent store cupboard for basics such as cooking oil, herbs, spices, etc. We had some coconut milk available to turn a hoard of green and yellow courgettes into a smooth and creamy soup.

The root veg and onions were cooked down and softened in a large pan; to this, some cans of chickpeas, kidney beans, fresh garlic and fresh tomatoes were added. So much nutrition! And, if that wasn’t enough, it was served with some bubble & squeak made with superfood kale and carb-packed potatoes.

Our desserts had been designed with both the ‘Great British Bake Off Caramel Week’, and ‘National Cup Cake Week’ firmly in mind! We were fortunate that with our donations it was possible to make banoffee pie and cherry & chocolate cupcakes to fit in with the two themes. 🙂

Banoffee pie is a dessert I remember fondly from my childhood. It’s such a simple dish, and I must make this at home. My boys (yes, including Rob!) would adore it. What a way to use the bananas and biscuit crumb – I’m sure GBBO would approve this use of caramel, too!

I think many will agree that the smell of melting chocolate can provoke an instant smile. Sure enough, there were many smiles in the kitchen while I made some chocolate ganache to pour over the cupcakes. Freshly poached cherries were placed on top and left to cool.

After nearly three hours of cooking, the FoodCycle hosting team arrived. Seven host volunteers welcome our guests, offer cups of tea or coffee, dish up the food and serve it directly to the tables. All volunteers are invited to join our guests for lunch, and I think this is a hugely important part of the community building: everyone enjoying each other’s company.

Some regular guests are known by name, and special diets are remembered and catered for too. Many establish friendships and look forward to meeting each week. All of this highlights the mission of FoodCycle to unite and build local communities and spirit.

Rewarding experience

I’m not sure where to begin in summing up my experience. I had a hugely enjoyable time in the kitchen. I had never met any of the other six cooks before, yet everyone got along, we chatted and laughed. It was a lovely atmosphere to work in.

Cooking together also means that you inevitably pick up new skills: how to improvise with ingredients, know which elements work well together, and discover new techniques – I now know how to make vegan buttermilk!

Much more than all of this, though, was the feeling that we had done something for others, without any wish to be thanked. It feels good to help others, and goodness knows FoodCycle really does help a lot of people. For some guests, it’s their biggest meal of the week, and one of the few chances they have to socialise.

Showing that people care and are prepared to spend time for you and with you, is one of the simplest and most rewarding things you can offer to another person. And, it’s close to the heart of the FoodCycle mission.

Before I get too emotional, I’m going leave you with two quotes, which sum it all up for me:

If you would like to find out more about FoodCycle and how you can attend a community meal or join a volunteer team, head to their website. If there isn’t currently a project up and running in your area, there may be plans to start one, so keep an eye on social media. 🙂

Bye for now!

Emma heart pink slender

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