FoodCycle Marylebone uses surplus ingredients from local businesses to lay on a weekly feast for residents in need of sustenance and companionship. The Journal watches the charity at work
Words: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Orlando Gili
Tonight you’re hosting a dinner for upwards of 50 people. Your guests expect three courses and the food must be tasty, nutritious, vegetarian and suitable for those with specific dietary requirements. But the cupboard is completely bare, so you’ll need to go shopping. Except you don’t have any money. Not one penny. To be honest I don’t fancy your chances.
Despite these odds, Caroline Cotton and Nathan Eddy are in good cheer when we meet at 9am sharp outside St Paul’s Church Marylebone on Rossmore Road. Caroline and Nathan are volunteers for FoodCycle Marylebone, a project run jointly by the church and the West London Synagogue of British Jews.
Every Wednesday, FoodCycle volunteers collect surplus food donated by local businesses, which is then prepared and cooked in the synagogue’s kitchens before being transported up to St Paul’s where a three-course evening meal is served. Many of the guests are residents of Lisson Green Estate, one of the most deprived areas of Westminster. For some, this is the only chance they get all week to share a meal and a conversation with others.
Caroline and Nathan set off at a canter along Rossmore Road. Caroline is coordinating things; Nathan has the honour of pushing the FoodCycle bike, which sports a large, covered box. The bicycle is soon left to its own devices outside Tesco Metro on Church Street while the two volunteers head inside, navigate a chicane of shoppers, nip through a side door, run down a flight of stairs and enter the stockroom.
Minutes later they emerge into the morning drizzle clutching bags full of surplus vegetables, salads, fruit, pastries and boxes of cereal. As Nathan loads up the bike I try to imagine what sort of three-course dinner could possibly include breakfast cereal, forgetting that crushed up cornflakes make a fine crumble topping. Alternatively, the boxes of cereal will be handed out at the end of the meal, along with anything else left over.
Nathan points the bike in the direction of Edgware Road, where a branch of Paul has been donating bread since FoodCycle Marylebone was born some 18 months ago. Following behind, Caroline, a former buying director who retired from the fashion industry two years ago, explains that their main local donors are Tesco, Paul, As Nature Intended and Waitrose. She would love to hear from other food businesses wishing to donate, although the food can’t be pre-cooked and must be vegetarian—FoodCycle can’t serve meat or fish in case somebody gets ill.
Caroline heads across the road on the prowl for ad hoc donations from the market traders setting up along Church Street. “I’m cheeky enough to ask them to help me,” she shouts over her shoulder, before returning with carrots, onions and a tray of avocados.
At Paul, assistant manager Baiba greets us warmly and presents Nathan with a large paper bag containing a variety of the bakery’s different breads. That’s us done for now. Nature Intended’s donation is always collected in the afternoon and Waitrose has nothing to donate this week, so we head to the West London Synagogue to unload our haul.
It is raining hard now, so Nathan wheels the bike, taking care to avoid the pedestrians and their dangerous umbrellas. Originally from the US and a minister by vocation, Nathan believes that projects such as FoodCycle Marylebone are vital tools for building a stronger local community. “I think we’re all aware, particularly after Grenfell Tower, just how important and precious community is,” he says. “We need places where people from different backgrounds can come together and everyone is welcome. Isolation is a huge problem in the area, so this project is important just to help people get out and have a good meal, meet their neighbours and enjoy the great neighbourhood that we live in.”
Several hours later, I’m standing outside As Nature Intended with Alex Cameron, a volunteer who coordinates FoodCycle Marylebone. Having received the surplus organic veg from the shop, we wheel the precious cargo along Edgware Road while Alex, who works as food and wellbeing officer at St Paul’s and was previously a community worker for the West London Synagogue, describes the shared philosophy of these two institutions: “The synagogue and the church both fundamentally believe that our society needs people to work together to change and improve the communities that we live in.”
FoodCycle Marylebone, she says, illustrates this perfectly. “The atmosphere is just like a big family meal and the guests really love getting to know our volunteers, who are mainly young professionals. To be honest, the volunteers get just as much from it, because loneliness is as prevalent among people in their twenties as it is for those over 60.”
The weekly meals usually attract around 50 guests, many of whom are older people who live on their own. “There used to be a local drop-in for senior citizens, but the council pulled the funding and it closed down, which is one of the reasons we started FoodCycle Marylebone when we did. And for most of the guests this is the social occasion of the week. We have loads of statistics on the number of people who feel it has improved their confidence and that kind of thing, but the one I like is that we’ve been the place of choice for six birthdays.”
With the food donations collected, the hard work continues in the professional kitchens at the synagogue. Alex and her team of volunteer cooks have less than three hours to work their culinary magic. Imagine an episode of Ready Steady Cook, but instead of a carrier bag containing just a few ingredients, Alex has to make sense of a mountain of fruit and veg, ranging from peaches, papayas and pomegranates to potatoes, parsnips and pak choi. Throw in a rather random mix of Jaffa Cakes, bread, pastries, breakfast cereals and cartons of organic oat drink, plus the chocolate and orange cakes donated by the same local branch of BNP Paribas that gifted the large food trolley used to transport the meal up to the church, and you have what amounts to an intellectual challenge as well as a culinary one.
Solid cooking crew
Alex grabs a few essentials from the store cupboard and a cauliflower from the freezer. She has made her decision. The starter will be an avocado and mixed leaf salad with pomegranate seeds. This will be followed by a main course of roasted root vegetables, pak choi and broccoli stir fry, baby potatoes in herb butter and cauliflower cheese. And for dessert there will be the cakes, plus a healthier fresh fruit salad alternative.
While Alex nips out to buy cheese, her fellow volunteers get on with the task in hand. Several are making their FoodCycle debuts, but they’re soon bantering away like old friends. Chopping boards and sharp knives appear, vegetables are washed and prepared, fruit is peeled and a so solid cooking crew is forged in the heat of the kitchen. Time for Ainsley Harriott to meet the contestants.
Patience Berry works for an American firm on Baker Street, is no stranger to volunteering for charities, loves cooking for friends and family, does an amazing roast chicken by all accounts and may have inadvertently invited me round for Sunday lunch. Salvatore Logalbo came to London eight years ago and is a professional chef keen to use his skills to help others. Currently between kitchens, he is looking for a job with more family-friendly hours—fatherhood can do that to a man. Valerie Volcina is a journalist and keen amateur cook who used to write a restaurant column. Living just a stone’s throw from St Paul’s, she discovered FoodCycle Marylebone quite by chance when she walked past one Wednesday evening and heard the happy commotion going on inside. Toby Graham took many cookery courses in his youth, but found his true calling to be front of house. Taking a career break from hospitality and restaurant management to look after two-month-old son Leo, he has still found time to volunteer for FoodCycle. Changing nappies is not something that Nate Stumpff needs to worry about anytime soon. This 17-year-old American is studying at the Halcyon London International School on Seymour Place. Despite his youth, Nate is a seasoned volunteer and used to make breakfast for the homeless back in the States.
A meal takes shape
During the next couple of hours, the team absolutely smashes it in the kitchen and a three-course meal takes shape. Just the cauliflower cheese to go as Alex stirs the simmering sauce. I notice that she has used the oat drink as a substitute for milk. “We try to cater to the dietary needs of the guests,” she says. “We need to know exactly what goes into our meals so we can advise them properly as to what they can and can’t eat.”
That’s if it makes it onto the plate. Alex winces as she recalls one particular evening when the main course, a curry, ended up decorating the floor of the tiny kitchen at St Paul’s. “That was probably our greatest disaster,” she laughs. “But we’ve had other weeks where we’ve been given no food, so we fundraise to allow us to buy it, because it’s more important that we feed people.”
By the time I rock up to St Paul’s the meal is in full swing. The guests are sitting around six large tables, swapping gossip and tucking into the starter. Though of various ages, the majority might be described as veterans of the London food scene. The avocado salad has gone down a bundle and nothing but empty plates are being ferried back to the kitchen. With some of the host volunteers up to their elbows in soap suds, others begin serving the main course.
Reverend Clare Dowding, the rector of St Paul’s and wife of our food-collecting friend Nathan, is working the room, welcoming every guest into her church. “We want to bring people together—particularly those who live alone or sometimes struggle to get by,” she says. “This is one of the most densely populated wards in the country, but because of the way the social housing is set up, people often end up living quite isolated lives. But what’s been lovely about the growth of FoodCycle Marylebone over the last 18 months is that guests have invited neighbours along, realising they live alone and may not have much of a social life.”
Three of the regulars are clearly having a cracking night, judging from all the laughter. And though a complete stranger, I’m instantly made to feel welcome at their table. Maggie Carr introduces me to her friends, Sue Davis and Pina Tingdan. Maggie has lived on the Lisson Green Estate for over 40 years and looks forward to these meals all week.
“It’s lovely not having to cook on a Wednesday night,” she says. “And it does help a bit with my income. Being the middle of the week I haven’t always got the shillings to spend on food. And everybody here is so lovely. We get really good service and great food. There was only one time when I couldn’t eat something and that was only because I was allergic to it.”
Company and conversation
Sue is also a resident of ‘the Green’ and has lived alone since the death of her partner. “It’s just nice to be with people and have a conversation. There’s nothing worse than sitting on your own with your dinner on your lap,” she says. “You meet some lovely characters here and the volunteers are wonderful. They can’t do enough for us. I’d give them 10 out of 10.”
Pina is the owner of both a fetching red hat and an exotic accent. “I’m originally from the Philippines,” she explains. “I have lived here in the Green for 30 years and before retiring worked as an instrument technician in the operating theatres at the Princess Grace Hospital and the Harley Street Clinic.” These days Pina keeps busy at her local community centre where she teaches fellow pensioners the joys of American line dancing. And like Sue, Pina has lived alone since her husband passed in October 2010. “I love coming to these meals because I love meeting people,” she grins from beneath her hat.
“I have made new friends through coming here and often meet them outside for a coffee,” adds Maggie. “This is a lovely local hub.” Walking away from the table I am struck by the warm, sociable din filling the church as the guests start tucking into the choice of desserts. And they aren’t the only ones enjoying the evening.
“You go home with such a nice, happy buzz after the meal,” says journalist Amy Lewin, who is in charge of hosting tonight’s meal. Many of Amy’s fellow hosting volunteers hail from far flung places. Kathy McKay moved to the UK from Brisbane seven months ago and works in mental health for the NHS. “So obviously I switched for the better weather,” jokes Kathy. “Before I moved over here people kept saying: ‘London is such a big city and the people are unfriendly.’ But here it feels like such a beautiful community where everybody is made to feel welcome.”
By the time the guests start drifting away, I am chatting with Fred Allen, who for the past year has been living just around the corner in sheltered accommodation. “I was homeless before,” he tells me. “I was living on the streets for 15 years on and off.” Fred is so grateful to have FoodCycle Marylebone on his doorstep. “This is brilliant,” he says. “I can’t fault it at all. And the volunteers are wonderful. They are always running around and the food is magnificent. And it gets you out of the house.”
Maggie and Sue wander over to say goodnight. I ask for their verdict on tonight’s meal. “Keep it clean,” laughs Fred.
“The word is ‘blinding’,” says Sue. “Absolutely blinding.”