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Zhero hour

To mark the 500th collection of surplus food from Borough Market by the Plan Zheroes charity, Ellie Costigan hears from some of the people involved in this long and highly significant partnership


It was almost seven years ago that Plan Zheroes volunteers, clad in their familiar purple t-shirts, arrived at Borough Market to make their very first collection of surplus food from the Market’s traders. The charity, which acts as a middleman between businesses with surplus and organisations that require food donations, has been coming to the Market ever since.

This spring saw their 500th collection, taking the total amount of food collected to more than 80 tonnes – the equivalent to almost 200,000 meals. “We’re really grateful for the support that we’ve had from the Market over the years,” says Plan Zheroes co-founder Chris Wilkie. “We’ve built relationships with a lot of the traders. They know us now and are always keen to help. Thanks to the initiative, the charities are receiving top quality food that many of their recipients otherwise would not be able to afford.” Unfortunately, Plan Zheroes was not impervious to the impact of Covid, having to pause collections for a period last year. “It’s been such a difficult time for charities, they’re all really struggling, but things are improving,” he continues, “and in the meantime, food has been getting to people who need it.”

One such beneficiary is Lucy Brown House: a sheltered housing complex based around the corner from Borough Market. “Our residents range in age from 60 to 90-odd,” says sheltered housing officer Richard Geary. “When we first set up the link with Borough, residents would go across to the Market on a Saturday, get the surplus and bring it back to the communal lounge where people could help themselves,” he explains. “Nowadays the guys at Plan Zheroes bring it over to us at the end of the day: most often it’s fruit and veg, as well as quite a bit of bread from Bread Ahead, who’ve been fantastic. Some of our residents are on universal credit and really struggle, often using food banks, so it’s great to be able to give them that extra fruit and veg. Most aren’t, but they often still have limited income and ordinarily wouldn’t buy fruit for themselves – they see it as a luxury – so they love it when I bring things like fresh strawberries or apples from the Market.”

Shuk Ng of Ted’s Veg

Prior to the pandemic, the Market also played host to Wok for 1,000, organised by Plan Zheroes in collaboration with School of Wok: an annual event which sees people come together to cook enough meals to feed 1,000 people using surplus food. Like many other events, sadly it did not take place in 2020. However, School of Wok head of operations Shannon McAuliffe was not prepared to give up entirely. “Shannon is incredibly kind-hearted, so seeing the impact of the pandemic on many, he was not about to sit around and do nothing,” says Jeremy Pang (pictured top), founder of the cookery school and a Plan Zheroes patron. “I had to furlough most of my staff, so with help from our operations team he used that time to launch a project called Feed.The.Nation to continue raising money for Plan Zheroes, offering virtual cookery classes in exchange for donations. He used the school space and our ingredients, free of charge, to do what he could in his spare time.”

Jeremy returned to Borough Market to help with the 500th collection. “It was uplifting. Everything was still so good and fresh – some of it might be blemished, but otherwise it’s worth good money,” he continues. “Ted’s Veg, which has always been a big supporter of Plan Zheroes, has also managed to become almost zero waste because of it.” Any surplus that isn’t donated by Ted’s Veg is now turned into jams or preserves, or composted and spread back on the farm’s fields. “I think that’s fascinating. It makes such good business sense.”

Borough Market managing director Darren Henaghan helps with the Plan Zheroes 500th collection

The ultimate goal is, of course, for food surplus to be prevented as far as possible (not to mention for nobody to be reliant upon food aid). The basic tenets of food waste management – prevent, re-use, recycle – are exemplified by the Market. Indeed, the Market’s holistic approach to waste management – whereby nothing goes to landfill; packaging is recycled, while inedible food waste is sent to an anaerobic digestion plant – was this year recognised by being named Best Circular Economy Initiative at the National Recycling Awards. 

The initiative begins and ends with the traders, who are encouraged to plan effectively to avoid waste. But “it’s impossible to get quantities exactly right,” the Market’s managing director Darren Henaghan admits. “Our footfall numbers vary daily, with factors as simple as the weather or as complex as Covid having an impact on people visiting us.” The result, says Kath Dawson of Ted’s Veg, is that traders are often left with a surplus of food that is “good enough to eat, but not quite good enough to sell – and I can only eat so much myself! That’s why I pushed for us to get involved with Plan Zheroes. We and other traders would so often end up throwing perfectly good food away, then there’d be hungry people going through the bins for food. It’s just not right.”

Such is the traders’ commitment that in the absence of regular collections during Covid, Kath’s team were delivering surplus produce to local charities themselves. “There are more people than ever who need help, so I got in touch with St George the Martyr. They’re two minutes down the road, so we’ve been dropping pallets of produce to them, which they either sell on at a reduced cost or use to cook hot meals for people who need them,” says Kath. “Ordinarily if there’s too much leftover, we’re forced to put it in the bin – I would much rather it feed people.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the essence of the Plan Zheroes collaboration: less food in the bin, more food bringing sustenance and pleasure to people who need it.