Bristol Foodcycle’s COVID-19 pivot: supporting vulnerable people throughout the pandemic

FoodCycle volunteers

FoodCycle Bristol volunteer Ed Oswald writes the latest Bristol Bites Back Better blog about how the organisation have had to adapt their work in this unprecedented year, and how they are using surplus food to feed up to 100 Bristolians each week. This Christmas Food Cycle ask that we all consider what surplus food we might be able to donate, whether to charities or by using an app like OLIO, or to help out as a volunteer. 

Food is a hugely precious resource. Not only does it fuel our bodies, but it also carries huge social value. Food is a vehicle for expressing friendship, smoothing social interaction, building community and showing concern. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to affordable nutritious meals, or the social value attached to them.

That’s where FoodCycle comes in. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, we take surplus food and turn it into nutritious community meals, with the aim of reducing food waste, food poverty and tackling social isolation. Anwen Bowers of FoodCycle Bristol has written previously for this blog about the organisations’ work.

FoodCycle Bristol runs two sessions per week in the city, attracting 40-50 guests per session. These guests range from OAPs to refugees and the vulnerable. More than just a wholesome meal, these sessions create a hive of inclusive social interaction and connection.

COVID-19 Phase One

In mid-March we were forced to temporarily close our services and formulate a plan for operating in a locked-down country. On the 3rd April, we reopened, delivering food parcels to people in need via bike. How were the organisation’s three aims affected?

#1 – Reduce food waste

The majority of our donated food comes from local food retailers. Stockpiling in the early phase of the pandemic meant that food retailers had less surplus food to donate. Therefore, we started working with fellow community food charities Fareshare South West and His Church to ensure that we could source and deliver necessary food parcels.

Retail and wholesale food waste only accounts for 2% of UK food waste. 20-30% occurs at the farm gate and a whopping 50-70% occurs at home. With the average Bristol family wasting £60 of food a month, find out ways you can reduce your food waste here.

#2 – Reduce food poverty

The Department of Health defines food poverty as “The inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet”. Food poverty, or household food insecurity, affects an estimated 8.4 million people in the UK. This value increased exponentially during Lockdown 1.0, with the Trussell Trust reporting an 89% rise in foodbank use in April.

More than 68% of our guests worry that they can’t afford to live and rely on our weekly meals. With this in mind, we stepped up to the (empty) plate and delivered food parcels to 55 addresses a week during the first lockdown.

#3 – Tackle social isolation

One of the biggest fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an increase in social isolation and associated mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and increased stress. One survey revealed that one in four (24%) UK adults experienced loneliness in the first two weeks of lockdown, compared with just one in ten (10%) shortly before lockdown.

To help combat social isolation, we launched a ‘Check-in and Chat’ service, where volunteers call guests for a weekly natter.

COVID-19 Phase Two

On the 25th July we decided that it was safe enough to convert to a ‘Cook and Collect’ model. We were able to reinstate most of our food donators and have been running this service ever since, cooking around 40 portions of food a week. Since launching ‘Cook and Collect’ in Bristol, we have saved just over three tonnes of surplus food, which is the equivalent to 7,960 meals, or 55,555 mince pies!

Like many of the community food initiatives across Bristol, we didn’t shy away from the challenge that COVID-19 brought and ensured that our services continued throughout this period. One guest said: “It makes me very happy that FoodCycle is still looking out for people and caring for the community during this time. Every week is like Christmas as I never know what new ingredient or new food I’ll get to try and I also feel it’s been prepared and made with love.”

We plan to re-instate our community meals as soon as it is safe to do so.

Time to participate

We at FoodCycle Bristol are certainly contributing to Bristol’s efforts to ‘Bite Back Better’ from the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some ways you can get involved with FoodCycle Bristol and other community food initiatives:

As an individual, you can do the following under the Bristol Going for Gold themes:

Buy Better – Support local retailers that donate their surplus food to us (Better Food, Sweet Mart, Star Cash & Carry, Malik Wholesale, Co-Op, Gardeners’ Patch, The Bread Store, Full Basket, Al Noor Supermarket, Rehan Food Stores, Good Food Plus and Chelsea Road Mini-Market).

Food Waste – Reduce your own food waste.

Community Action – Volunteer with us (roles include food collection, surplus food coordinators and delivery drivers, plus cooking or hosting at ‘Cook and Collect’ projects).

Eat Better – Eat more veg and meat-free meals (all our meals are veggie) and learn a new cook-from-scratch meal (see this Shepherd’s Pie ‘recipe’ that some fellow volunteers have pulled together).

Food Equality – Host a fundraiser for us, donate to our charity or share your surplus food with people in need (try using OLIO – a food-sharing app).

As an organisation, you can:

Support community action on food – Offer your time and skills, materials, space and financial support.

As a food business, you can:

Donate your surplus food – We pick-up surplus food from BS5, BS6 and BS7. Delivery drivers can also pick-up from further afield. Better Food is the newest retailer to donate their surplus food to us – agreeing to donate “organic, local & ethical” produce twice a week.

Visit the Bristol Bites Back Better website to find out how you and your organisation can play a role in building a stronger food system for Bristol. Share your insights and stories using the hashtag #BiteBackBetter. Find out more about the campaign here.

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