How a day at FoodCycle reminded me that people still get left behind in a city like London
Living for 27 years in a third world country like the Philippines – where all forms of poverty are prevalent everywhere you turn – can make you somewhat desensitised and disconnected from the sufferings of others. It becomes so normal to you that it won’t be a surprise if you brush it off and – worse – accept it.
Then you move to a first world city like London. My first thought was: how could a rich, thriving, capital-of-the-world city like London still have people going hungry? Then it hit me, that’s precisely the problem.
I spent a day as a volunteer at FoodCycle Islington. Watching people from varying walks of life come together to cook for others and share a meal at lunch has been particularly eye-opening.
I watched closely as everyone became engrossed in conversation throughout the day – whether while chopping mushrooms or over good hot spinach and lentil soup. Some are new and still strangers to one another. Others have been regular volunteers and guests weekly. It was as if everyone had known each other for a long time, nonetheless. The room was small enough so everyone sat close to each other and the atmosphere was warm.
Although I already knew that FoodCycle does more than just feed people, experiencing for myself the intangible effect of the community-like gathering – and how it directly addressed the issues brought about by food poverty – was something else entirely.
On the day I volunteered, our guests comprised of people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues. But there was no segregation in the room. Everyone mingled and conversed, regardless of what they looked like, what they wore, the colour of their skin, their accent, or their personalities.
What makes FoodCycle cooks unique is there is none of the usual queueing to get a pack of food, nor is there a long table to separate volunteers from guests – a subtle but clear declaration of status and class in society. Instead, guests are served and attended to as in a high-end restaurant. Being waited on in itself already lessens if not prevents the sinking feeling of swallowing your pride for food, and makes people feel more comfortable.
The four-course meal for that day was meticulously prepared by a team of hardworking and passionate volunteers who not once showed any sign of taking their work for granted. It was free labour. Time was the currency, and the dozen or so volunteers – a mix of veterans and rookies – looked more than happy to donate it. Some of them had jobs but were on break so chose to do something meaningful in the meantime, while others were retired and looking to stay productive.
That day upwards of 30 guests showed up and many came back for seconds. There were no leftovers, to the delight of the volunteers. They were even happier to store excess ingredients from the groceries, however, for the following week’s cook. All ingredients used for FoodCycle cooks are reclaimed from major groceries in the UK that would have otherwise thrown them away. None of them are bad. In fact they’re good, tasty, and healthy once prepared into meals. And that addresses an environmental issue of food waste reduction in such a bustling metropolis that must watch its carbon footprint.
My day volunteering at Islington was a learning experience in just how crucial of a basic need food is to human beings. It’s not just sustenance for the body. When done right, food brings people together, and it addresses issues such as social isolation and mental health. In a city of nearly 9 million souls, it makes people feel like they belong and that they’re not alone – and these are the little-emphasised intangible, albeit palpable, benefits of the FoodCycle cooks.
Those few hours of the day thawed my sometimes hardened attitude toward poverty and suffering. Yes, London is a rich city, and it’s way more progressive than the slums of Manila, Philippines I used to travel through daily. But that doesn’t mean the people suffering here have it easier and therefore do not deserve to be helped or paid attention to. Suffering is suffering, wherever and whenever. If anything, the number of people in the fringes of a city like London, should serve as a wake-up call that it still has a long way to go when it comes to inclusivity and equality.
I strongly urge anyone to volunteer, even for just a day, and spend your spare time doing something that helps people less privileged in more ways than one. You can never go wrong with that.
By Jane Bracher