It’s mid-winter. You’re cold, tired, hungry and homeless. The streets of London are dark and onerous. You see an open door leading to a soup kitchen. Inside you find freshly-cooked food from the likes of Marks and Spencer or Whole Foods. Chances are the food was delivered by City Harvest, and maybe even Mark Harvey, it’s co-founder.
It’s a simple concept – collect unwanted groceries from segments of the food industry and distribute to those in need. City Harvest offers this service all over London. Since 2014, it has been on a mission to provide meals to the likes of homeless shelters, hostels and soup kitchens. By delivering free groceries, it helps to free up much-needed cash that can be used for other services such as medical care.
I spent the day with Mark – an eternally optimistic Liverpudlian who once lived rough on the streets of London. Life gave him lemons and he chose to make lemonade. He bit the bullet, got himself back on track and now helps feed the homeless community he was once a part of. Keen to not be portrayed as a ‘saint’, he sees himself as a regular guy doing a regular job.
We made our first collection of the day – Marks and Spencer handed over trays of groceries and even a few plants. These were later gratefully received by a women’s homeless shelter, who would otherwise have had to purchase the supplies themselves. The plants brightened up an otherwise clean but stark interior.
Mark was once a successful cameraman working for a major television broadcaster, when an industrial accident “took the wind out of his sails.” Suffering from a semi-dislocated collarbone and five prolapsed discs, he was signed off work for 12 months. When he returned to the job he had “loved for 15 years”, he was told his services were no longer required. “They found a way to sack me” he said.
Growing tension and a bout of depression led Mark to lose his family, his home, his health and the career that he loved. Hunger drove him to scour through supermarket bins for his meals – an experience he will never forget, as “once you’ve been in one you can’t get the smell off – it was horrendous”.
While on the streets, with his injuries still causing mobility problems, Mark was pleased to find a local soup kitchen, where he went on a “calcium diet” to help his bones. “You are so vulnerable when you are homeless – if anything happens to you, you’ve got nowhere else to fall,” he says.
A turn of events then changed his luck.
Helped on his journey by “the big guy upstairs,” a local charity managed to find Mark a bedsit, and from there he enrolled on a web-design course. He ended up teaching others his learnings because “doing positive things made me feel more positive about myself.”
In 2011, Mark coordinated a food delivery with ex-offenders during their 80-hours voluntary work placement, and the concept for City Harvest grew from there. With the concept for food redistribution firmly in mind, Mark stood by his favourite quote from the explorer Hannibal: “We will find a way or we will make a way’.”
When asked how he feels about helping people who are in the unfortunate position he was in, Mark says: “I’m just happy to be able to help. There are some things you just do because you want to do it, not because there’s a return in it.”
Mark now spends six days a week collecting food from donors, including M&S, Whole Foods, Morrisons, Costa Coffee and New Covent Garden Market. The company is reliant on funding and donations to enable it to supply food to hostels, soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
City Harvest was a finalist in the edie Sustainability Leaders Awards 2017. The awards celebrate a company’s environmental impacts and ensures any organisation is legally compliant within environmental parameters.
The storage warehouse for the donations is a veritable Aladdin’s cave – not only food, but boxes of toiletries, children’s toys, laundry essentials and even shoes. Not just any old shoes, but designer footwear from big brand names. A pair of pink ballet pumps displayed a price tag of over £300.
Food is gratefully received as long as it’s not out of date or opened. These items are regularly ‘thrown away’ by suppliers due to lack of storage space or to make way for a new range.
After a long day, we made our final delivery to a church which had been set up as an overnight shelter. We carried trays of food past the homeless who were by then queuing up outside, eager to enter the makeshift shelter. The aroma of freshly-cooked hearty food filled the air. You could sense the anticipation.
Laura Winningham, CEO of City Harvest, said: “We safely and reliably get the right food to the right people at the right time. We don’t believe retailers feel good about wasting food, they’ve just needed a reliable logistics organisation to come to the rescue!”
“City Harvest are determined to balance the needs of the hungry with the surmounting supermarket waste. We provide a simple solution that solves many of the complexities for both food donors and food recipients.
“Most of the food donors we’ve met with including supermarkets, restaurants, manufacturers and distributors are thrilled that we are offering this logistics service for surplus food. They all want to work collaboratively once they find out how simple it is to get good food to where it needs to go. Most people in the world don’t wish to waste food.”
At the end of a long day, spent with a regular guy from a charitable company, the word ‘saint’ was ringing in my ears. I couldn’t help but see the irony when during the day I saw him handing out bread and fish to the needy. It’s food for thought.