Volunteers from the Plan Zheroes charity work at Borough Market every Saturday, collecting surplus food and directing it to some of the most vulnerable people in the community. The Market’s new managing director Darren Henaghan went along to offer his services
Words: Jean-Paul Aubin Parvu
Images: Sophia Spring
Out in the Jubilee car park stands a motley crew of cars, vans and a forklift. Dusk is falling and all is quiet. But something, or rather someone, is stirring. A young woman is carrying a box of fresh produce, which she deposits on a trestle table. This is Cara Lewis, a volunteer from the charity Plan Zheroes, who gives up her Saturday afternoons to coordinate the surplus food collections at Borough Market. And like all the best volunteers Cara has started early.
She is soon joined by others, all sporting pristine purple tabards. Jen La, Erin Verbeck, Gemma Carr and Lauren Hooper have been off collecting surplus produce from generous traders, and they are returning now with a precious bounty of green beans from Ted’s Veg, rye bread from Karaway Bakery and tortillas from Cool Chilli Co.
The ranks of the volunteers increase by two with the welcome arrival of the Market’s new managing director Darren Henaghan and wife Emma. Darren is lending his muscle to the Plan Zheroes scheme by turning out as a volunteer. Emma is just as keen to help and her tabard proves to be a far better fit than that of her husband.
The couple’s first task is to hoist the sign, announcing: “Surplus Food Collection—Plan Zheroes—Getting great food to people who need it.” Succinctly put. Darren and Emma then help their fellow volunteers to sort through the freshly arrived produce.
To nourish and sustain
Plan Zheroes is a deliciously simple scheme. Participating traders donate their surplus food at the end of the Saturday shift, which is then weighed and recorded by the volunteers before being divided up for collection by participating local charities. The likes of The Dragon Cafe, Blackfriars Settlement and St Mungo’s use this high quality produce to nourish and sustain some of the most vulnerable members of our community.
The initiative has been in operation here at the Market since June 2014, with an ever-increasing number of traders and charities coming on board. “Borough Market has been so supportive,” grins Cara. “They are very keen to support their local Southwark charities and the Market has such a presence and reputation throughout the local area.”
And what could be more important than feeding the borough’s neediest residents? “Exactly!” agrees Cara, who works as a dietician and believes the scheme is vital for a number of reasons. “I guess from so many angles. We’re improving the health of local residents. We’re increasing the variety in people’s diets, giving them food they might not have had exposure to before. But it also reduces the amount of food that gets thrown away, so there are the green benefits of that too.”
As Cara returns to the task in hand, Darren and Emma are busy sorting through the next batch of produce, which includes milk, yoghurt and Stichelton cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy.
It’s all hands to the pump with Plan Zheroes, but luckily the charity’s CEO Laura Hopper is able to both work and talk. “I come from the homelessness sector, so reducing food poverty is something I’m really passionate about,” she says. “Working in that sector I saw how food can really change people’s lives.”
Food is the driver
How so? “Plan Zheroes works with homelessness organisations, but also other charities that support the elderly and people with mental health or substance abuse issues. And food is very often a core part of their service. For homelessness organisations, it’s a way to get people engaged in their services. If you serve them a hot meal, you can sit down and talk to people about the reasons that made them homeless in the first place and work on the issues surrounding their homelessness. Food is often the thing that drives people into the centre.”
In the present economic climate, these charities need this donated food more than ever. “They are facing cuts to their funding,” stresses Laura. “So this scheme really helps them in terms of freeing up some of their budget, allowing them to put money into other services that they would normally spend on food, or enabling them to provide more meals for their beneficiaries.”
Darren and his fellow volunteers march off in the direction of Turnips, emerging moments later laden down with all manner of prime produce including red peppers, grapes, plums and plump blackberries. “We often get some unusual things from Turnips,” reveals volunteer Jen La. “They once even donated wild edible flowers.”
Returning to the car park we find the tables creaking under the weight of sourdough loaves courtesy of Olivier’s Bakery and boxfuls of Paul Crane’s mangos.
Leading by example
Darren pauses for a quick word. Judging from his smile, the Market’s managing director is really enjoying being a volunteer, but he’s deadly serious about Borough Market leading by example. “We are always looking for ways in which we can support the environment, make sure that we minimise the amount of waste, but also tackle social justice issues,” he says.
And Darren is hugely supportive of Plan Zheroes. “The scheme is absolutely fantastic, because it’s all about combating waste, but also it’s about the traders and the Market—and remember that the Market is a charity itself—giving back to the local community and supporting some of the most vulnerable people. We just think that’s incredibly, incredibly important.”
Naturally this scheme would be nothing without the growing army of traders who donate their surplus produce. “They have exactly the same ethos,” says Darren. “They are good people who want to put something back.”
But why on earth would Darren decide to brave this particularly chilly Saturday afternoon to volunteer with Plan Zheroes? “I think this is probably one of the most important parts of my job,” he says. “We have so much to do in the Market in terms of creating a space for our food producers to do something a little bit different, to do something meaningful, and to do so in a way that gets the maximum possible benefit from their food. That’s why the Plan Zheroes initiative is so good. And that’s why I wanted to come down today and show them my support, and really shine a light on what these people do every single week in the freezing cold and the pouring rain. And to say to them: ‘Well done and thank you.’”
Plan Zheroes has just received a clutch of eggs from Ted’s Veg. Kath Dawson and her team have been involved in the scheme from its inception at the Market, and she neatly sums up just why such an initiative is a complete no-brainer. “Why chuck surplus food in the bin?” she argues. “Give it to somebody who really needs it.”
The volunteers have gathered in the last of the surplus food from around the Market. The produce has been carefully weighed and recorded and is now ready to be distributed to volunteers from the participating charities, some of whom are waiting patiently just away from the tables.
Agne Martin volunteers at St James Roman Catholic Church in Peckham and uses the donated food to feed those most in need. “They come to the church and choose what they need for that week,” she reveals. “They’re people who cannot afford to buy it—big families with small kids, elderly people.”
Tina Johnston coordinates the older people’s services at Blackfriars Settlement. “This initiative is very important to my charity,” she beams. “It cuts down our shopping bill significantly. I distribute the food among members who cook in their homes and also use it at our lunch clubs for the older people in the community on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. And Plan Zheroes is amazing, really wonderful. They are an amazing group of people.”
Regaled by tales
The donated food can also be put to good use in fundraising initiatives. During the summer, Tina transformed surplus tomatoes into jars of her banging tomato chutney, which she then sold, and did something equally delicious with chillies. Today she has her eye on the mangos.
Food isn’t the only thing being freely distributed this afternoon, but also a pallet load of comradeship and goodwill between traders, volunteers and Market staff. This is how lasting relationships are formed. The group is soon being regaled by tales of Tina’s mango chutney, which is arguably every bit as good as her legendary tomato chutney.
Eventually Agne heads off towards her car with her charity’s share of the surplus food. Two-year-old Ethan is helping mum and follows behind proudly clutching a juicy mango—proof that you are never too young to volunteer.