Inside the Ealing food rescue charity delivering one million meals a month to Londoners
By Dimitris Kouimtsidis
26th Aug 2021 | Local News
NESTLED on a quiet industrial estate in Acton, music booms out of one warehouse unit which distributed the equivalent of eight million meals to Londoners last year.
With white and green branding, unit eight is home to City Harvest, a food distribution charity delivering essentials to up to 350 charities each week across the capital.
Originally, charity founder Laura Winningham, who lives locally, 'started with one van' to collect leftover food from supermarkets in 2008, but it has since grown into a lifeline for huge numbers of people.
The organisation also has a sister warehouse located in East London, best placed for operations on the other side of London.
The Acton warehouse is fresh with art splashed on its walls by talented London artists, and volunteers and staff are made to feel 'part of the family' with a tuckshop of foody items for them to choose from.
Touring around the site with huge stacks of fresh food, tins and more, community impact manager Andrew Mcleay, explained: "A lot of people working here are on the breadline, like they have lost their jobs, this is a really good way to be able to help them."
As one of the newer members to the team, joining in January from previously working at Ealing Soup Kitchen, Andrew says the staff numbers have doubled since the pandemic rising to 50.
Volunteers on the books are reaching near to 3,000 with an influx of 'talented' people economically hit by lockdowns.
And a lot of the volunteers who joined the ranks during periods of furlough or unemployment due to the COVID crisis, have since been taken on as paid staff.
Kathryn Marshall, City Harvest's volunteer engagement manager, is one of them.
The 26-year-old has been on furlough from her job as cabin crew for British Airways since the start of the pandemic when she described her 'whole world was turned upside down'.
The languages graduate from the Wirral began jet setting all over the world with BA after finishing her degree in Leeds, and was based down at Hounslow, Uxbridge, and now Ealing Common to be close to Heathrow airport for work.
But the experience of uncertainty around BA's 'fire and rehire' scheme, Kathryn recalled as 'really ungrounding' in not knowing whether she was going to have a job, take leave, or be able to pay her rent.
Kathryn added: "I quickly realised in quite an emotional way I didn't have a support network down here.
"I lasted a month at home doing everything everyone else was doing making banana bread, reading books and thought I have got to do something, I have got to volunteer."
She started volunteering at City Harvest multiple times a week and found a 'little piece of sanity' in familiar faces who cared about what was happening in each others' lives.
In the summer months, she was offered a paid position as the team expanded.
"It's just been such a rewarding experience," Kathryn said.
"People don't just come here to give their time, they come here because it's a sense of community, it can sometimes be someone's family."
Comparing her much-loved new job to BA, she added: "The job with BA, it's not a job, it's a lifestyle.
"It's a different team every day, it gives you very little opportunity to connect with people on a long-term basis whereas here, I have found good friendship in my team."
Volunteer and staff backgrounds are also wide ranging from people who have experienced homelessness to those living in leafy parts of wealthy Kensington.
Kathryn added: "It really highlights no matter what background you come from something that unites us is helping other people."
Operations Manager Steve Brand is another colleague who nine months ago was working in corporate events.
As the crisis struck, the 41-year-old remembers watching his computer screen with bookings cancelling and 'disappeared in the space of an hour'.
While he was looking forward to a career break on furlough for the first time in his life, he got called in by a friend to help volunteer at the charity in need of extra hands.
"I really loved it, great atmosphere, I came back and the next day and the next, [then told] we are looking for office manager and the rest is history," he said.
During the pandemic, the charity has received a hike in donations from restaurants who have been forced to close, and include high-profile supporters ranging from Nandos to Amazon Fresh, Marks & Spencers, to the Chelsea Flower Show.
Andrew, who builds up relationships with the charities City Harvest serve, says many causes have started up due to COVID, such as residents' associations and COVID mutual aid groups.
City Harvest was also delivering to hotels for homeless people staying during the government's Everybody In scheme and now delivers to hostels and supported accommodation.
Charities also range from domestic abuse to mental health services.
In Andrew's former job at Ealing Soup Kitchen, he remembers being a recipient of City Harvest for extra supplies, but only saw the charity as a 'small part' when they showed up to drop-off food packages for five minutes.
He said: "I never realised how organised it is, all the food, it's quite crazy to see the level of organisation it needs to run and the speed that is needed."
In 2019, the charity recorded a distribution of four million meals in the year across London and now they are on track to deliver one million meals a month for 2021.
But Steve admits 'it's not all rainbows' in managing the vast operation of feeding London and he has long been lobbying the Mayor of London and Transport for London for more travel exemptions to cut down their costs of distributing supplies.
While the charity receives a £3 discount on the congestion charge per time as their vans do the rounds, this still leaves fees of £11.50 to do their job.
They are also challenging fines – such as for parking – of up to £5,000, which they say are due to technical errors.
He said: "We are effectively subsidising the welfare state, we want a bit more support from City Hall."
He added: "We are essentially a social service, we shouldn't be paying for parking.
"It's very difficult, if we had a pass we could put it in the van and say we are driving to people who need it."
A City Hall spokesperson said: "Local authorities, charities and voluntary organisations that provide services in response to the coronavirus pandemic within the congestion charge zone may be able to claim congestion charge reimbursements for a temporary time period.
"Eligible organisations can apply to the scheme through the TfL website."
It is understood that City Harvest has not applied for this specific exemption scheme, but due to it being a reimbursement offer the charity feels it does not cater to how its daily operations work.
A City Harvest spokesperson added: "Specifically in the last year, the congestion charge has been an ongoing issue for food rescue charities in the capital who have requested and been denied exemption.
"It costs a charity £11.50 per vehicle, per day, to deliver free food to people who would otherwise not eat.
"For the cost of our daily congestion charge to TfL, we could feed an extra 700 people a day.
"We are feeding London's hungry and charge nothing for our services, we should be exempt."
Steve also flagged how road blocks that have been erected across many London boroughs in a bid to create traffic calming measures and encourage people to walk and cycle have also been an added frustration to the charity's daily deliveries.
He said due to the diversions and build up of traffic in certain areas it has meant van drivers can only do six drop-offs a day rather han eight.