Hungry for change

How do we balance sustainability with food poverty when food is too cheap for farmers but too expensive for many? Jack Thompson meets three organisations facing up to the challenge.

LogoThis article is part of a new series by Wicked Leeks, Sustainable Cities, exploring what sustainable food means to those living in the city.

Smiling faces and fragrant aromas of toasted spices greet you as you walk into the bright orange café in Walthamstow, north east London. In this warm and uplifting space, you would never guess the people inside are tackling three of society’s most pressing issues; food poverty, food waste and social isolation.  

The friendly environment of the Hornbeam Centre and Community Café sits in stark contrast to food banks, just as a recent study reveals the heart-breaking mental health impact of using them.  

“It’s about solidarity, not charity,” says project coordinator Sophie Aoun, who explains that the Hornbeam Centre aims to combat rising hunger and poverty through community projects. “We’re trying to bridge inequality in our neighbourhood through ways that are more empowering than the traditional food bank model,” she says.  

We often hear that food is sold too cheaply to allow farmers to produce it sustainably in low-intensity systems, prioritising animal welfare and without excessive chemicals. But, at the same time, it is also still too expensive for many in our society. There are 4.7 million people in the UK struggling to put food on the table, and foodbank use is at an all-time high. 

To add another stat to the mix, at the same time, a third of all food is wasted globally. Something is clearly wrong.  

“On one end there’s all this food waste,” says Aoun. “And on the other, so many people are experiencing food poverty in the UK.” 

The Hornbeam Centre tries to tackle both these problems by rescuing surplus food from supermarkets, farmers and even allotments. They then distribute it to six community hubs and cafés in the borough, including their own, called the Gleaners Community Café. The café then transforms it into hearty vegan meals. 

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Inside the Hornbeam Centre they tackle food waste, food poverty and social isolation.

Today they’re serving up Caribbean rice and peas infused with fresh coconut donated to them, with an aromatic Keralan curry made with surplus veg. So far, it looks just like any other café. Except you might not recognise the unusual shape-based pricing of the menu, which offers four different prices for the same meal, according to how much you can afford. Different prices are symbolised by different shapes, ranging from £1 to £10.   

“It’s beautifully divided between the four amounts,” says Alex Lee, a member of the Gleaners café. “If we did 20 lunches, there would be six squares (£10), six circles (£6), six stars (£1) and two triangles (£3).” 

“You’re catering to people from every background, and that’s what is really interesting and powerful,” Aoun adds. “You’re not just a charity tackling food poverty.” 

Alongside issues of hunger, the idea of sustainable food could seem a distant concern. But the Hornbeam and the Gleaners recognise that the issues are interlinked. “We cut our costs down by using surplus and we use our purchasing power that comes from the [pricing] squares to (£10), six circles (£6), six stars (£1) and two triangles (£3).” 

“You’re catering to people from every background, and that’s what is really interesting and powerful,” Aoun adds. “You’re not just a charity tackling food poverty.” 

Alongside issues of hunger, the idea of sustainable food could seem a distant concern. But the Hornbeam and the Gleaners recognise that the issues are interlinked. “We cut our costs down by using surplus and we use our purchasing power that comes from the [pricing] squares to buy organic,” says Lee.

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The Hornbeam and Gleaners café team showing off their equitable pricing system. 

But ultimately Aoun believes you cannot tackle the root cause of food poverty with food waste. “How do you solve food poverty? You solve poverty,” she says. “How do you solve food waste? You solve overproduction. It [food aid] is helpful in the interim, but in the long term it doesn’t really solve the bigger systemic issue.”  

That’s why the Hornbeam Centre has teamed up with Plenty to Share, a campaigning organisation that speaks with one voice on behalf of food aid organisations concerned about the structural issues that cause food poverty.  

Feeding hungry people with food waste should only ever be a short-term fix, according to Harry Morgan, project coordinator at Plenty to Share, but companies, food banks and the government see it increasingly as a win-win scenario. 

“It’s about keeping food waste and food poverty as separate and systemic problems,” explains Morgan. “We say it’s really important to keep these two (issues) very distinct, and the solutions are completely separate as well.” 

Meanwhile, Gavin Shelton, director of CoFarm Foundation, a community-based farm in Cambridge, questions the ethics of giving food waste, often intensively produced and unhealthy, to people in food poverty. “It feels like there’s something so deeply wrong that if you don’t have a high disposable income, then you don’t have access to food which is sustainable, safe and nutritious,” says Shelton.  

The team at CoFarm is aiming to show that local, organic food is for everyone, including those in food poverty. In two years, the 500 volunteering ‘co-farmers’ have donated £52,000 of sustainable produce to people on the breadline in Cambridge, the UK’s most unequal city.   

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Volunteers have donated all their produce. Credit Sam Mellish, CoFarm Foundation. 

“We set out to find a way that local and sustainable food doesn’t cost the earth because otherwise it will always remain a fringe interest for a small number of people that can afford it,” he says. Having donated their entire harvest the past two years, Shelton accepts that they’ll need to start selling 25 per cent of their produce next year to financially sustain themselves. But he maintains that the project doesn’t rely on the sheer benevolence of volunteers, because they too benefit from the scheme.  

“They’re learning about growing, they have access to an amazingly pleasant green space that helps them to manage their mental health,” he says. “And it’s providing a social place for people to meet others that they might not ordinarily socialise with.” 

And Shelton and his team of co-farmers are keen to prove this is a scalable solution for food poverty, the environment, and community cohesion. “Ultimately what we’re trying to do is get a quarter of million acres by 2030,” Shelton reveals.  

This is an admirable ambition, but director at Plenty to Share, Melvyn Newton, has doubts over how donating food addresses the root causes of food poverty. “You can’t end food poverty until you end poverty,” he says. “People need to be sovereign in the market. They need to be able to afford to buy what they need to buy.”

“It’s about strengthening the social safety net, reversing the £20 a week [Universal Credit] cut and delays to benefits,” adds Morgan. “In the longer term, a living wage income is something that seems crucial.”  

Organisations like the Hornbeam Centre and CoFarm are challenging the norms in how to provide much-needed support in a more dignified way. But ultimately, they recognise that the solution is way out of their hands.  

“As a small community organisation, there’s no way we can do it all on our own,” says Aoun. “All we can do is help.”

Crunching the numbers

8.8 per cent of UK households have struggled to put food on the table this year, a rise of 7.3 per cent from last year. 

One million adults in the UK have had to go a whole day without eating because they couldn’t afford food. 

People on Universal Credit are five times more likely to struggle to afford food. 

The Trussell Trust gave out 2.5 million food parcels in 2020-21. 

Food banks are providing 128 per cent more emergency food parcels than they were five years ago. 

This article was originally published in the spring print edition of Wicked Leeks. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu.

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