Second helping

Categories: Features

In Britain, 10 million tonnes of food and drink are wasted each year. Market Life explores how Borough’s traders are helping to tackle the issue, while helping local charities

Words: Viel Richardson
Images: Orlando Gili

It’s Saturday, on a cool but pleasant late afternoon, and a small knot of people are gathered around a couple of newly set up tables in the Jubilee car park at Borough Market. Despite appearances, these are not extremely tardy traders just arriving, or a group of chancers trying to sneak into trading at the Market by the back door. The reasons for this gathering are altogether more edifying.

According to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, in Britain each year we throw away 10 million tonnes of food and drink, the vast majority of which would have been perfectly good to eat. This costs the country an estimated £12.5 billion to dispose of, can harm the environment and consumes resources that could be better used elsewhere—and at a time when there are still people for whom good quality nutrition can be a challenge. Food waste is clearly an issue that has to be addressed.

Which brings us to the small group standing by a couple of empty tables in a car park. They represent a significant step in Borough’s contribution to dealing with the issue of food waste. The first of the group to arrive is Jacopo, who works for an organisation called Plan Zheroes. “We were set up to help charities in need of ingredients to get in touch with those businesses who have excess food,” he explains. “We are here this afternoon to collect donations from the Borough Market traders.”

Cutting food waste
While the idea—taking the small amount of surplus fruit, veg and bread left over at the end of a busy Saturday’s trading and giving it to people who can make good use of it—sounds like simplicity itself, putting it into practice has been a convoluted process. In November 2013, a group of interested parties, including the Mayor’s office, Sustain and the Sustainable Restaurant Association, launched a project called FoodSave, with the aim of cutting food waste in London.

Sustain is an umbrella organisation for businesses and organisations which advocate food and agricultural policies that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals. It was through its work with the FoodSave initiative that Sustain first contacted Borough and introduced the Market’s traders to Plan Zheroes.

“I am here with the representatives of the charities who will receive the produce. Today we are here with the Dragon Cafe,” Jacopo explains. Run by the Mental Fight Club charity, the cafe, based in the crypt of nearby St George’s church, serves up cheap but highly nutritious lunches for people who have experienced mental health problems. Run on a shoestring budget, the initiative is able to make excellent use of the surplus produce.

Saved from landfill
“It can be a bit nerve-racking at the beginning, because we never know what we are going to get. Sometimes it will be quite plentiful, but on other days when the traders have been very busy there will not be much at all. But we are always grateful for whatever they can give us,” says Jacopo. Part of his task is to weigh and record everything that comes in. This makes it possible to assess what each charity is getting, how much money is being saved to use elsewhere, and how much food is being saved from landfill.

As we speak, the first of the day’s offerings arrives in the form of a few bags of bread and other tasty-looking baked goods from Bread Ahead, quickly followed by more from The Flour Station and Karaway Bakery. While the loaves, baguettes, focaccia, and chelsea buns bring smiles all round, it is the arrival of two trays of brownies that really lights up the faces of the volunteers.

“These are incredibly popular,” says Sally, who runs the Dragon Cafe kitchen. “While we keep the prices as low as we can, a lot of people who come to us are on a budget—but whatever they decide to buy, people always seem to find something for a brownie.”          

Beautiful Kentish sweetcorn
The brownies are quickly followed by fruit and vegetables from Paul Wheeler Fresh Supplies and Turnips: potatoes, aubergines, tomatoes, celery, artichokes, several varieties of mushrooms and even some beautiful Kentish sweetcorn. Soon the tables are covered with food. Jacopo’s early nerves were unnecessary—today is going to be a good day.

“It is still early days for the project, and we all really want to understand how we are helping both charities and businesses,” Jacopo explains. “Borough Market is the perfect place to pilot this scheme: to find out what works well, what is difficult and where there are any potential issues in this style of collection and distribution.”

Also helping out in the car park is Sarah Wheeler, the founder of Mental Fight Club. “Mental Fight Club came out of my personal experiences of mental illness, which have been fairly long-standing and have caused mayhem in my life,” she explains. “My experience has been characterised by long periods of depression followed by short bursts of euphoria—which many people do not understand can be equally damaging to the sufferer. It was while I was on the cusp of moving between those two states that I encountered the poem Mental Fight by the Nigerian author and poet Ben Okri.”

Mental Fight Club
The poem had such an impact on her that Sarah decided to hold a gathering to read the poem and see what other people thought of it. “We then continued to meet regularly after that and as a joke I called it Mental Fight Club. The readings and activities became very popular and we developed into a kind of pop-up organisation, meeting in the area between London Bridge and Elephant & Castle.”

Beneficial as these meetings were, Sarah herself was not immune to her condition recurring and there followed a long period when she was too ill to be heavily involved with the organisation she had founded. “Coming out of a three-year period of illness I came back home and went to St George’s Church. The crypt had been renovated since I had last visited and I thought it was an amazing space. It had a lovely huge kitchen and two clean, good-sized rooms where people could meet.

“I remember thinking that when I was unwell I had spent a lot of time in either pubs or cafes, and cafes were by far the healthier option for me. I thought almost immediately that this would be a wonderful place to set up a cafe for people who were going through times of vulnerability. For me cafes were normally colourful, stimulating and relaxing sort of places. So I thought, why not start a cafe here that not only provides food and drink, but also has space for the activities the Mental Fight Club was putting on?”

A place of sanctuary
For those who have since flocked to the Dragon Cafe, it is far more than just a place to grab a bite. It is a place of sanctuary—the complete opposite to the kind of places that usually characterise the mental health system. “Most of the time the places are dreary, the quality of the food is very poor and the staff are not very friendly. As a mark of profound respect for people who are going through very difficult times, the idea was for the Dragon Cafe to be the very opposite of that,” Sarah says with real feeling.

“As the starting point, I wanted the food we sold to be of the best quality possible, while still being affordable. Funnily enough, even though I never thought it could happen, I had always wanted to have some kind of relationship with Borough Market. One of my main aims for the cafe was to provide a high quality environment, and what could be more high quality than the food from Borough Market?”

Marc Joseph is the chef who gives up his Mondays to turn the generosity of Borough Market’s traders into the menu for the day. This particular Monday morning, as the sun just about clears the church roof to illuminate Borough High Street, we join Marc and his volunteer helpers as they open up the crypt kitchen. It’s a big job. “The first thing we have to do is set up the kitchen,” Marc explains. “Because the cafe is only here once a week, we have to take everything out of storage cupboards to get the cooking areas ready.”

An experienced professional chef
Marc, an experienced professional chef, became involved with the charity because Sarah happens to be his neighbour. “She knew I was a vegetarian chef and asked me to get involved because they wanted to serve a vegetarian menu. I have been involved with the Dragon Cafe from the beginning. At the start, I would create the menu and then I would order the ingredients, so the relationship with Borough Market means that things have changed quite a bit.”

Now, the produce dictates the menu rather than the other way round. Marc takes a quick look at the crates, baskets and bags that contain the ingredients he will be working with today before dictating the placement of the pots, pans and trays that will be put to use in what is a surprisingly well-equipped kitchen.

There is no Ramsay-style bellowing in this kitchen: once the food preparation starts, quiet chatter and laughter accompanies the sounds of slicing and dicing. Tomatoes are being washed, aubergines cut, celery chopped, apples peeled and sweetcorn stripped as Marc gets to grips with the food now at his disposal.

Ready, Steady, Cook
“I really enjoy this part,” he says. “It is a bit like Ready, Steady, Cook. The menu gets created on the spot. It is spontaneous, and that is one of the things I like about it. People always ask me how I do it, but I can’t really say. Ideas just kind of pop into my head, and the menu evolves. Some days it is clear from very early on, others it takes longer, and more than once I have changed my mind half way through.”

Wherever the inspiration comes from, Marc clearly makes great use of Borough’s surplus produce, as the cafe has attracted a loyal following. “Starting with lunch, we feed a good 200 people every Monday,” says Marc. “We always have soup, and we always try to have a quiche. Then we make another main dish like a curry. If we get a lot of fruit, we make a fruit salad. I will also bake something for dessert like scones. So there is quite a lot going on.”

As with the rest of the events put on at the cafe, the food is having an effect. One of the most rewarding aspects of the project for Sarah is the response the team behind the cafe gets from its visitors.

Discover new interests
“Every week people tell me that having the cafe means they have a place that helps them deal with the struggles they are going through,” Sarah explains. “They tell me they find the place very motivating, it develops their self-confidence, they discover new interests and make new friends. Just having a place where they feel accepted helps them deal with the isolation that so many vulnerable people have to struggle against.”

And if a few loaves of bread and bits of fruit and veg that would otherwise be disposed of can help in some small way, then so much the better.