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Recycling for body and soul

27 March 2020

Creative use of potential food waste can build communities, Hugh Thomas discovers


Guest and volunteers at FoodCycle centres in Peterborough and Finsbury Park. See gallery for more images

Guest and volunteers at FoodCycle centres in Peterborough and Finsbury Park. See gallery for more images

ON A damp Friday in February last year, out of the blue, I received a phone call from a charity called FoodCycle. They had to move from another venue locally and needed a new home. The caller explained that they provide a free, cooked, three-course meal weekly on a Saturday, using vegetables and other non-meat or non-fish products that had reached their sell-by date in some of the large UK supermarkets. They welcome all, and have a wide cross-section of guests. All they needed was a working kitchen and a good-sized hall; we had both, which were then under-used.


I had been licensed in the parish only three months earlier, and was starting to think about new ways for the church to reach out to the wider community. Ignoring the received wisdom of “not moving too fast in the first year”, I decided that, on this occasion, the more appropriate response was carpe diem. On reflection, I believe that it was one of those moments of “God-incidence”, where one seems to be led to a conclusion, and then realise that it was not all the coincidence that one first thought. Responding to such calls must be what Christian ministry is all about.

I then had to work out exactly how to put things into practice. After a helpful part- loan/part-grant from the diocese to upgrade the kitchen, we opened for business just before Easter. As I had by then learned, FoodCycle is a successful national charity, which, in 2019, served 423,000 meals in 41 centres around the country (12 of which are in London alone). As a result, in 2019, more than 178 tonnes of food waste was recycled through the 77,000 happy tummies that attended the 2035 dining events across the 41 projects nationally.

When we started, we thought that we might get about 40 guests after a year or so. In fact, we reached 40 within a month, and are now welcoming, on average, 50 to 60 guests each Saturday. New tables are being ordered, and more space is being made available in the church. We opened through Christmas, and are now planning to open 52 weeks a year.


WHAT is particularly encouraging is that the venture has brought together a wide cross-section of the community. There is no “qualification” to attend, and no questions are asked. Each guest is served at table (as in a restaurant) by a group of volunteers organised each week by FoodCycle. All guests are treated with equal respect, and there are usually enough volunteers to ensure that no guest needs to sit alone. Some have challenging backgrounds, but all are cared for.

The small congregation has greatly supported the venture — which must have been one of the easiest resolutions to pass at a PCC meeting. The congregation are great advertisers of events in the area; it has also, perhaps, opened the eyes of some to the needs of the community in which they live.

FoodCycleRaw materials at a FoodCycle centre, Peterborough

At about 11 a.m. every Saturday, a van full of food arrives outside church, and the volunteers (generally young people) take in whatever is available. They have no idea what they will find, and so have great fun creating recipes from what they have. All the volunteers receive food-hygiene and other leadership training from FoodCycle, and there are at least two more experienced leaders each week.

Some of our regular guests live in hostels, or “sofa-surf”, but these are not the majority. Others are struggling financially to feed a family. Alongside these guests are those who attend simply because they may be lonely. Loneliness can be as debilitating as lack of food, and is a scourge of many in our large urban environments. In a 2019 survey, 77 per cent of FoodCycle’s guests said that they had made new friends.

But not all our guests are needy, and it is really developing as a community meal. Our neighbours come along, and, from time to time, so do some local councillors. In addition, our hard-working Gardening Club friends come in for a meal after a busy morning tending our garden, where vegetables and fruit are also grown — together with a herb garden — for the use of FoodCycle.


ON THE first day of #LiveLent’s 40-day challenge “Caring for God’s Creation”, we were reminded of Genesis 2.4-8 and the creation by God of all things. We are reminded that we were created from the dust of the earth; and that human beings and the earth are closely linked. Everyone and everything is part of the community of creation. Caring for God’s creation involves not only reducing waste and recycling, but also tending to the lonely, the hungry, and those for whom life is a struggle.

FoodCycleFinsbury Park volunteer serving lunch

The community that comes together at St Cuthbert’s on a Saturday morning reflects the diversity of God’s creation. They come from a variety of faith backgrounds and none, and the Foodcycle charity itself is non-religious. Bringing all this together every week over some wholesome food has made the “community of creation” a reality at St Cuthbert’s.


The Revd Hugh Thomas is Associate Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, West Hampstead, in the diocese of London.


To explore setting up more “creation communities”, or to donate, visit the Foodcycle website www.foodcycle.org.uk. For further information, email hello@foodcycle.org.uk.

While FoodCycle community meals are suspended in current circumstances, some projects have moved to a takeaway service to continue to provide guests with a weekly meal.

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