My friend Kathy works for Cyrenians, a charity that serves those on the edge; working with the homeless and vulnerable to transform their lives. Until recently she was based at the FareShare depot in Leith; Cyrenians runs the Central and South East Scotland franchise. Kathy has always talked about her work with such sincerity that I jumped at the chance of a tour of the depot.
The operation takes up two units, one on each side of the road. I arrive amidst the hustle and bustle of crates of food being unpacked, vans being loaded and tools being carried from the distribution unit across to the brand new ‘Flavour and Haver’ cooking School.
Having worked in a supermarket many moons ago, the first thing that strikes me is the similarities to a standard food warehouse. It’s a smaller version, but nevertheless the processes are clearly the same. Food is donated to Cyrenians from a variety of sources. Mostly it’s supermarkets and the odd restaurant chain but the Gleamer movement (people who take unharvested produce from the ground and ensure that it’s not wasted by passing it onto food banks) have also donated some of the crates of food today.
Every day is different. This being Burns Night the fridges are crammed with turnips and sprouts, along with a generous donation of partridge from M&S. I was also surprised to see lots of Nando’s chicken. A number of restaurants around the city kindly donate to FareShare on a regular basis. The quality and variety of food was impressive.
This is not your standard food bank, where bags of food are given to individual households. Groups, otherwise known as Community Food Members (CFM’s), apply to become a FareShare member. The foundation principle of FareShare is that the food is distributed to charities and community projects working with vulnerable people or providing social good. Once approved, they pay a small membership fee which varies depending on the size and requirements of the group. As a social enterprise, the fee is simply to cover the cost of the warehouse operation.
There are currently 117 CFM’s receiving food which would otherwise be wasted. Community Centres in areas of deprivation, soup kitchens, lunch clubs for elderly people who would otherwise struggle to find a pal to eat a home cooked meal with. One school club on the distribution list receives enough food to cover 564 breakfasts, 300 lunches and 515 snacks per week. It’s mind-boggling to consider the variety of tables that this food will cross, the thousands of tummies which will be satisfied as a result of this incredible organisation.
Relationships are at the core of all work within the community – I think that’s why I love to be around this kind of environment. It’s all about the people. From the staff at Cyrenians striving to foster partnerships with the food donors (and don’t be fooled – Tesco or M&S don’t just swing by with thousands of pounds worth of food without years of leg work), to the people in the community groups who ask for and cook the food, to the volunteers who are the backbone of this operation.
I spoke with some of the volunteers during my visit, and they are rightly proud of the work that they do. One man has volunteered with Cyrenians for 17 years and 6 months. He told me that he would be dead without the support of the staff team or the motivation to do something different. A recovering addict, he is almost a full-timer here and has received training to do a variety of jobs within the warehouse. In fact 85% of the volunteers are supported, or have been, regarded as vulnerable adults.
They have experienced homelessness, addiction, the criminal justice system. They’re now part of something positive – from working in the warehouse to taking cookery classes in the all-new community kitchen across the road.
Kathy talks to me about how Cyrenians receives what is regarded by the donor as waste food, but they see it as surplus food. They then turn it into “fuel for the community.” It’s some community. Each week, the hard graft from Cyrenians feeds over 7,000 people in the Lothian area (a total of 35 tonnes of food each month).
Thanks to the people involved in this food chain 7,000 people have something fresh and nutritious to eat, and someone to eat with.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Cyrenians FareShare are always increasing the number of incredible community projects they serve. If you can think of a community project that could benefit from membership, please spread the word!
Alternatively if you are looking to volunteer, there are always opportunities in a variety of roles.