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Super Zheroes

For Food Waste Action Week, Plan Zheroes co-founder Chris Wilkie explains how his charity’s decade-long partnership with Borough Market has put surplus food to the best possible use 


Words: Mark Riddaway / Images: Orlando Gili

On Sunday 3rd March, as Borough Market wound down at the end of the day and the last of the customers carried their bulging bags towards the exits, a small team of volunteers set off on their familiar route around the stalls, talking to familiar traders, fulfilling familiar routines. The only unfamiliar part of the whole venture was the day itself. Volunteers from the Plan Zheroes charity have been coming to Borough Market since 2014, but never on a Sunday.

For 10 highly fruitful years, Plan Zheroes has been collecting leftover food from the Market’s traders – food that’s on the edge of being unsaleable but is still good to eat. Rather than being thrown away, this food is taken to a collection point to be weighed and documented before being carried away by representatives from local charities, who use it to feed their service users. At no point does any money pass hands – just high-quality ingredients and a lot of goodwill.

“Essentially, we’ll support any charity that needs food,” says Chris Wilkie, one of the co-founders of Plan Zheroes. “Charities that support the homeless, the vulnerable, the elderly, the young.” Partly, the objective is to feed people who might otherwise go hungry, but there’s more to it than that – as well as providing much-needed fuel, good food, when shared, can be a conduit for human connection. “It’s all about communities. It’s about bringing people together in a social situation, helping vulnerable or lonely people find friendship and support. The food itself is just one part of it really.”

Local charities select surplus food from the Plan Zheroes collection point

Blackfriars Settlement in Southwark, a regular destination for Borough’s surplus food, is a good example. “We’ve been supporting them for a long time, and they provide a place where elderly people can go and have a nice lunch and meet and talk. Isolation is a huge problem, particularly in a big city like this, so places like that can be so important.” Other recipients, which number about 40 in total, include the St Mungo’s homelessness charity and the sheltered housing complex at Lucy Brown House.

The Plan Zheroes partnership with Borough Market began with just a single weekly collection; now, with the addition of Sundays, it’s up to five nights a week, meaning more people being fed and less food being thrown away. The new Sunday collection is a particularly important addition to the schedule – the Market closes every Monday, making the potential for surplus food even greater.

The aspiration of both Plan Zheroes and Borough Market is for all six trading days to eventually be covered, but ramping up takes time. “It takes a little while to bed in a new day,” says Chris. “The charities operate under really difficult circumstances. They’re staffed by volunteers. It takes a while for them to get into the habit of coming on a new day because they’ve got their set routines. Also, they have to pay congestion charge, and a lot have got old vehicles so have to pay the low emissions charge. That means it’s costing them more than £12 a time to come here. It’s a challenge, even though they need the food so much.”

Given the vagaries of the bounty – influenced by everything from the behaviour of the weather to the judgement of the traders, to the order in which the charities arrive at the site – none of the cooks receiving the food have the slightest clue what the day will bring, meaning that every delivery to their kitchens is like an episode of Ready, Steady, Cook. What they do know, though, is that the quality of the ingredients will not disappoint. “It’s food that the traders can’t sell tomorrow, but still it’s all top-quality food,” says Chris. “It’s all fine to eat, and most of it will be used the same day or the day after by the charities.”

Plan Zheroes in numbers

Over the past 10 years, the Borough Market partnership has:

— Saved 115 tonnes of food
— Created 270,000 meals
— Avoided 450 equivalent tonnes of CO₂ emissions

For the Market’s traders, the ideal is to create as little surplus as possible, but the idea that any surplus might be thrown away would break their hearts, hence the enthusiasm with which so many of them participate in the scheme. “Every food professional I’ve ever met hates to throw good food away,” says Chris. “They’ve spent time and money creating it, and they want it to be eaten and enjoyed. We’re keeping it out of landfill and we’re getting it to people instead.”

Plan Zheroes was founded by Chris, Maria Ana Neves and Lotti Henley, who passed away in 2021. “This was about the time of the financial crash back in 2008,” says Chris. “None of us had any experience of charity work, but we’d heard about a single mother living in Earl’s Court. She had three children and couldn’t afford to give each of them a hot meal every day, so they had to take it in turns. We’d also been reading about supermarkets throwing food away, and we just thought, this is just crazy. There’s this mother who can’t afford to feed her kids, and just down the road there’s a supermarket binning perfectly good food. So, let’s see if we can do something about it.”

A volunteer from Plan Zheroes helps one of the recipient charities haul a bag of surplus food away from Borough Market

The tragedy is that food poverty in this country is now even more widespread and acute than it was at the start of the Plan Zheroes story. “You know, there are more people going hungry in the UK today than there are living in the whole of London,” Chris continues. “Something like 13 million people are affected. Surplus food shouldn’t be seen as a solution to food poverty – it’s really a sticking plaster – but whatever we can do to help, we’ll do.”

The charity’s hands-on approach at Borough Market is an exception to the norm. Most of the team’s work around the UK is carried out through an online platform. Registered businesses that have surplus food post a notification on the platform. An alert goes out to charities in the local community, and those charities make the collection. “In most cases we never see the food,” says Chris. “We don’t collect it, we don’t store it, we don’t deliver it. All we do is we act as a broker between the businesses that have the food and the charities that need it.”

The source of this surplus food could be a cafe, a restaurant, a food shop, a hotel, a hospital, a school, an airline – even a chart-topping band. “Recently we’ve been helping a US charity called Musically Fed who provide food after rock concerts. So, The 1975 played The O2, they played in Glasgow, and we helped to distribute the leftover food from their rider.”

Somewhere out there, a charity’s service users got to eat Matty Healy’s dinner. The Borough Market partnership may lack quite the same star wattage, but it more than makes up for it in its volume, consistency and impact. Every week, day after day, people who need feeding, people who relish the opportunity to break bread together somewhere warm and welcoming, get the chance to enjoy food of the very highest quality. This happens because Borough’s traders and all the volunteers involved in the process are determined to make it happen, squaring the circle between those who have excess food and those who need it.

“If surplus food is being generated then the only good thing you can do is to give it to people,” says Chris, “and that’s what we try to do.”