FoodCycle In The North East

Volunteer with an organisation tackling hunger, isolation and food waste
Colin Petch
April 2, 2024

FoodCycle was the inspirational idea of Canadian Kelvin Cheung – who in 2008 understood that matching communities with surplus food from supermarkets – was fundamental to connecting people, tackling loneliness and reducing food waste.

Since then – not least because of the seemingly never-ending cost-of-living crisis in the UK – the movement has grown to be one of the most important grass-roots organisations tackling hunger and isolation – and much more besides.

This week alone, the dedicated people who are FoodCycle will be serving over 80 community meals across the country – and new locations are constantly being added.

Louise Green is the Regional Manager for FoodCycle in the North-East – and with 8 projects in Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and Hartlepool, she and her team have a constant challenge to match volunteers with need.

Louie Green, North East Regional Manager for FoodCyce charty
Louise Green: FoodCycle's Regional Manager In The North East

Louise: “Across the patch we are appealing for volunteers, but with Sunderland, which is a newer project - the guest numbers have been huge. It's gone straight into the 40's, which is quite high for a very early project.

“And with our Hartlepool project, we moved venues last year and reopened in a new centre which was a bit bigger – with better facilities and again we saw the numbers shoot to high 40's, sometimes into the 50's.

“But for everywhere else, the general message is: If you're interested and can get involved – please do volunteer.”

Each community meal operates with two teams (hosts and cooks). Hartlepool requires at least 7 people on the host team each week and ideally 5 people in the kitchen. FoodCycle Hartlepool is based in the Community Hub South, which is part of the larger community hub network in Hartlepool. These one-stop-shops often have other vital services such as libraries operating from them.

The Sunderland team operate from the imposing sandstone Stockton Road United Reform Church. Louise explains that the Church and the Elders were keen to open up their space: “It’s a fantastic space. It's potentially one of our most beautiful venues, and the room that we have the meal in is light and airy. We have really great relationships with both the Sunderland and Hartlepool venues – we have great support. They're both lovely places.

“Generally, with projects like Hartlepool and Sunderland - they stand alone in their areas at the moment. Most of our guests don't drive, but if there's access to public transport, people may travel a small amount. It's worth making the journey for a hot evening meal in a warm space.”

Louise confirms that word-of-mouth very quickly alerts communities to a new FoodCycle location, but accessing volunteers to deliver the meal events is more challenging. And over the last twelve months – need across the North East has been increasing.

Louise: “I've been in post for almost a year and-a-half now and we've seen all guest numbers increase. We certainly have a lot of conversations with guests who explain they're really faced with heating or eating. The challenges that many people are facing are becoming more extreme.

“We conducted a guest survey at the end of 2023 and confirmed we served up 63,957 meals – and saved 26,862kg of surplus food from heading to landfill. In the North East last year 7,098 guests sat down to have a meal with us. To date on our patch, we’ve served up 202,708 meals, saved 87,238kg surplus food and welcomed 18,343 guests to have a meal with us.

“Some people come because they're socially isolated and so a lot of people will eat meals alone – and don't feel part of their communities. But there's also stark statistics that confirm lots of people are skipping meals because they can't afford to eat.”

Across the FoodCycle network, guests can be from any number of communities: The long-term poorly, asylum seekers and refugees, the elderly – or those in unstable housing situations. While the teams serving the delicious three-course meals never question personal circumstances, the development of positive relationships with guests inevitably leads to conversations and signposting about issues other than food.

Lousie: “Since I came into post, we’ve started a weekly subscription with Fairshare who are a redistribution charity. We pay a low amount just to guarantee a set weight of food. The supermarkets are fantastic – and we do regularly pick up from them, but worryingly some weeks it wasn't enough.

FoodCycle Volunteers

“Supermarkets are getting more savvy with their waste. It's reduced across the board which is great news for food waste – but there'll always be some, so to guarantee that our meals can run smoothly, we’ve opted into things like Fairshare."

After a career in catering and education, Louise is an obvious fit to take FoodCycle forward in the North East. Combining many of her passions, from good food – to equality of opportunity – along with her team, she’s making a measurable and vitally important difference to the region.

“There's a lot of contact with a wide range of people and that is also good. I think the one thing to say when encouraging people to come and volunteer is that no experience is required. We have a Project Leader on each team who will show you the ropes, especially within the kitchen. I think people get a bit nervous thinking ‘Oh I'm not that good of a cook', but you're guided through everything as a volunteer – and it’s wonderful to watch people's confidence grow – and they quickly become indispensable to our teams.”

And the final question has to be: What is Louise having for tea tonight?!

“I’m not cooking tonight, but I can tell you a classic thing if I was: I guess my favourite go-to, quick recipe at home would be a Katsu Curry. You can make the curry sauce out of onion, carrots, a bit of garlic, some fresh ginger, coconut milk, and that's about it. Have it with rice – but it goes with any vegetables, any proteins you want. It’s versatile, cheap and very quick to make!”

If you’d like to help FoodCycle make a real difference in Hartlepool PLEASE CLICK HERE or Sunderland PLEASE CLICK HERE