Word from the Front Line – Food Works, Sheffield 

When the UK went into lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic, one social enterprise in Sheffield rapidly adapted their operation to meet the new challenges in making healthy food accessible to all.  

The social enterprise Food Works was founded in 2015 with a central mission of reducing food waste in Sheffield. Each year, they rescue between four and five hundred tonnes of surplus food and, through a small team of staff and an army of volunteers, make this food available in their market, box scheme and schools programme. They also cook professional-standard meals which are served back to the city via community cafés and an events catering service. Although reducing waste is their fundamental aim, fairness is also an important value to Food Works, which means their work has a major social impact. CEO Rene Meijer explains: “Although Sheffield has many affluent regions, there are also incredibly deprived areas, sometimes within walking distance. Whilst the wealthier areas are well served by artisan food outlets, others are ‘food deserts’ in comparison, with hardly any shops, making it difficult for people to access affordable, healthy food.” Food Works run a market, where members of the public can fill boxes with surplus food items, then pay what they are able to. “It’s a way of addressing food waste as part of a broader approach that looks at all the broken aspects of the current food system” Rene says. 

When the UK lockdown was imposed, however, the Food Works team decided that their activities would have to adjust to meet the immediate needs of city residents. “We literally sat down that night and made a decision about how we could best help all the people who would suddenly have difficulty accessing food, both for financial reasons and because of self-isolation” Rene says. Since their catering service and community cafés had to close, they channelled their capacity into a new meal delivery service, targeting those unable to shop for themselves and busy key workers with no time to cook. Using a simple online form, anyone can sign up for a week’s worth of healthy, nutritious meals for a suggested donation of £9.95 (although this is waived for anyone struggling financially). Keeping their professional ethos, Food Works cater for vegetarian, vegan and halal diets and all major allergens, even though this makes things “massively more complicated” as Rene says. So far, they have supplied over 5,000 meals, delivered directly to people’s doors.  

By introducing rapid changes, Food Works were also able to keep their market open. Instead of customers browsing and choosing items, the boxes are now pre-packaged in advance with a selection of products. “This means that all people need to do is come in, pick up their box, make a donation then leave” says Rene. The market has also extended their opening hours significantly to minimise queuing. Although customer numbers vary over the weeks, footfall has been on average 50% higher than pre-lockdown levels, showing the increased demand for affordable food.  

Through these two outlets, Food Works Sheffield is still achieving its fundamental aim of reducing food waste in Sheffield. Since they collect surplus food from wholesalers and large retailers, the closure of the hospitality industry has not affected their supplies. Instead, they have redistributed food from new sources, particularly when businesses were forced to close for the lockdown; both the city’s local universities, for instance, invited Food Works to empty the storerooms for their canteens. “We are able to use just about everything” Rene says. “Any food items that need a bit more preparation and aren’t suitable for the market, our chefs know how to use them for the delivered meals”. Nevertheless, they have had to compromise on some of their environmental principles: in particular, Rene feels uncomfortable about having to use plastic containers for the delivered meals. “At the moment, it is the only way we can deliver these meals safely and at an affordable price” he says. “We have to ensure the model can continue for another year if necessary, rather than being a short-term project that was enabled by a one-off donation”. 

Food Works have also had to rely on the local community to a much greater extent than ever before. Formerly, they were a self-sustaining enterprise who fully self-funded their social activities from public contributions. “To respond to the need created by coronavirus, we decided to temporarily embrace more external grants and funding” says Rene. This included a crowdfunding initiative, setting up an online donations page on their website and applying to charitable and government-issued coronavirus response grants. “People have responded more than we would ever have imagined” says Rene. “It’s enabled us to purchase PPE supplies and provide free meals for those that need them”. When their kitchen became unavailable due to a building closure, they put out a call on social media for help. Endeavour, a local charity that works with disadvantaged young people, responded by offering to loan their teaching kitchen. “It’s an ideal set up because it has lots of well-spaced out individual food preparation stations thus complying with social distancing policy”, Rene says. 

Ultimately, Rene hopes they can reintroduce their full activities as soon as possible, drawing on the wealth of new collaborations and partnerships that the lockdown has brought. He even envisages that they may continue the meal delivery service to increase their reach beyond their static cafés. “I believe that one benefit of this crisis has been that people are more aware of how important it is to take care of each other on a local basis. Instead of waiting for politicians to do something, people are deciding to help their neighbours themselves. Hopefully, in the future we can foster that to achieve our vision of activating people to build a movement in Sheffield around sustainable food”. 

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Interview by: Caroline Wood 

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