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Fighting fires with food

Turning surplus food into affordable nutritious meals allows Food Works to address more than just food poverty in Sheffield with their three cafes, home-grown veg and frozen meals.

Foodworks café serving hot drinks and cakes all made from surplus food that would otherwise go to waste
Anisa Mustafa

The multi-million-pound food industry disposes of mountains of surplus food while some of the communities it serves are facing an urgent food-scarcity crisis. Turning this paradox into a solution is at the heart of a Sheffield social enterprise set up in 2015. Food Works saves hundreds of tonnes of surplus food from going into landfill sites by diverting it to disadvantaged communities as nourishing cooked meals and affordable food produce.

Rapidly rising food insecurity and the proliferation of food banks in one of the world’s richest nations has been condemned as a ‘national disgrace’. According to a Trussell Trust report, based on research by Heriot-Watt University, food bank reliance increased by 128% from 2015 to 2021. The Trust handed out 1.6 million food parcels in 2019, which unsurprisingly rose during the pandemic to 2.5 million in 2020/21.

If food banks are the fire fighters in the food insecurity crisis then organisations like Food Works are the ones trying to prevent fires breaking out. Like many contemporary social problems, food insecurity is linked to poverty and accompanies a host of other social challenges including poor physical and mental health, social isolation, political disenfranchisement and lack of social cohesion. Food Works' holistic approach recognises and addresses these complexities through an entrepreneurial, community-based model.

Foodworks Sharrow café
Anisa Mustafa

Food Works run three volunteer-run cafés in Handsworth, Upperthorpe and Sharrow. Here, volunteers can learn to cook nutritious meals and cash-strapped families can socialise while feeding their children a healthy diet. Jo Hercberg, Director of Communications and Partnerships at Food Works tells Now Then, "Our food is available on a ‘pay what you can afford' basis with a minimum £1 contribution." The benefits of community capacity building and civic engagement go far beyond addressing immediate food hunger. One volunteer at the Sharrow café, who is retired, says helping in the kitchen gives her time some structure and alleviates social isolation. Another, who is in full-time education for a career change, says she values the social contact and enjoys the work.

Food Works also run a farm where volunteers grow fresh produce for distribution, making local communities more resilient to food insecurity by creating fair, sustainable food supplies. When the pandemic hit, Food Works' catering and café services had to close down overnight but working with Sheffield City Council the organisation redirected efforts to providing frozen meals for isolating individuals. Jo says ‘our work didn’t stop for a single day and we gained many new community members and supporters along the way.’

Jo organising deliveries of frozen meals that can be brought through a subscription service
Anisa Mustafa

The innovative approach of Food Works and others like it, such as The Bread and Butter Thing in Manchester, draws on the wisdom of a famous Chinese adage: ‘If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime’. Yet these efforts alone are insufficient to avert the looming crisis of food shortages and global warming facing the planet. As the Trussell Trust argues "it takes more than food to end hunger". It may also be argued that recycling food waste simply perpetuates the problem by whitewashing the dubious practices of large corporations spinning profits at the cost of the environment. As Jo highlights, "Interestingly we collect food ‘for free’ from large corporations who see it as a good CSR (corporate social responsibility) exercise, whereas they pay handsomely for other waste disposal."

This highlights the complex economic and political causes behind food scarcity, which are beyond the powers of local community organisations to eradicate. What Food Works does do is demonstrate how strategic planning and creativity can turn dust to gold. As Jo says, "There is enough food and wealth to go around but it isn’t shared fairly across the population." Food Works has shown how ethical and non-competitive innovation can address both the climate crisis and inequality in the food system. Despite considerable running costs, Food Works still pay their staff the Real Living Wage, "which is more than big organisations are doing" Jo points out.

Jo is keen to challenge assumptions that surplus food is exclusively for those struggling financially. "Food Works is open to all and inclusive of everyone, no matter what your reasons are for eating or shopping with us," she says. This call to widen engagement is a reminder that food waste and the climate crisis are social issues for everyone. "By offering people a chance to pay more if they can afford to, we prompt people to consider what food is worth to them."

Organisations like Food Works cannot stop the cost of living crisis hurtling towards us but they do give us an effective alternative to the profit driven mode of governance and economics that have partly caused it. Public support can send a strong message to large corporations and the government that there are different ways to manage social, economic and global challenges.

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