‘If food waste was a country it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases’

A nationwide initiative that aims to cut food waste and to stop people going to bed hungry

Darragh Doyle of Foodcloud delivering items to Paula Mahon of Jobstown Against Drug Dependency. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Darragh Doyle of Foodcloud delivering items to Paula Mahon of Jobstown Against Drug Dependency. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

At the cosy kitchen of the supported housing agency Sophia Housing, breakfast is over and an English resident named Robbie is sitting with a cup of tea. Robbie has an artificial leg and some health problems. When he got married a few years ago the head chef here, Trevor Kearns, catered for him. “I was telling him you made the food for my wedding,” Robbie says when Kearns emerges from the kitchen.

“I did,” says Kearns.

“Now, I didn’t say it was any good,” says Robbie and everyone laughs.

“Robbie’s a character,” says Kearns, before adding loudly, “Shame he’ll have to go back to England after Brexit.”

November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related content in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related content in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth

Robbie laughs. I am here because the people at Foodcloud, who specialise in redistributing surplus food that would otherwise be thrown away, are in the process of putting together a digital map, called Help with Food, of all the places that provide food to those in need.

“We get emails regularly that say things like ‘I’m starving and my daughter had no food yesterday and I won’t go to Br Kevin because I live locally,’ ” says Darragh Doyle, Foodcloud’s community manager. “Help With Food will allow people to find the charities … who can provide help. It will also celebrate the great work the charities do, often on very limited budgets.”

'It’s bizarre to see there’s three months on this product and [some company] was going to put it in the skip'

So today they’re taking me to visit some of the places they work with. Trevor Kearns, a very experienced chef, is the sort of culinary wizard that makes Foodcloud’s offering particularly potent for a charity.

When he came to work for Sophia Housing 10 years ago, the lovely kitchen area wasn’t built and the 150-year-old convent across the yard “smelled of overcooked cabbage”. They had banned salt for seasoning, he says, but had a freezer full of salty processed food. He laughs. He’s changed all that. “Everything is homemade here now … Breads, soups, sauces, scones. Nothing’s really bought in.”

Iseult Ward, co-founder of Foodcloud, shows me Kearns’s Intstagram page. It features items such as raspberry meringue kisses, wholemeal scones and braised feather blade of beef and chorizo all made with surplus food from Foodcloud.

Here he creates meals for residents, staff, the children at the creche and many local parents. There’s a budget of 30 cents to feed the children in the creche each day, says Kearns. “With Foodcloud you can cook a whole meal on that. Some days they get fillet steak ... You can see in their faces: ‘Is this for me?’ Some of them live on takeaways … Some kids don’t recognise green vegetables because all their food is orange.”

Kearns estimates that he’s saving 70 per cent of his food budget working this way and he recently bought a big freezer to store food that arrives in excessive quantities. The nature of surpluses can be, Ward says, “unpredictable and bizarre”.

“We have a glut of cranberries at the moment,” says Kearns. “We do Christmas puddings every year, so this year we’ll use cranberries instead of raisins.”

Kearns gets lists of what food is available once a week and, as a visually minded chef, he also drops in to the warehouse sporadically. “It’s bizarre to see there’s three months on this product and [some company] was going to put it in the skip.”

So he sees what’s available, he says, “and then we plan the week around that.”

“It’s like Ready, Steady Cook,” says Ward.

Food waste

Ward is amazed by the variety of institutions that redistribute the surplus food Foodcloud collects. In 2012, when she and O’Brien established the initiative in Trinity College Dublin, it hadn’t occurred to her quite how many charities feed people in the course of their work – some producing hot meals, others offering food parcels, some doing both.

She was focussed on stopping food waste and “probably naively at the time [we] thought, ‘We can just get the food over here and bring it here.’ It turned out to be a bit more complicated.”

A selection of more unusual donated items at Foodcloud warehouse. Photograph: Dave Meehan
A selection of more unusual donated items at Foodcloud warehouse. Photograph: Dave Meehan

While most people are appalled at the idea of food businesses throwing away surplus food, most people are also appalled when shop shelves are understocked. Because of this sense of consumer entitlement, supermarkets err on the side of oversupply and food waste is a natural consequence. Part of Ward and O’Brien’s zeal is educational. They want people to think more about the food they use and what goes into creating it.

“If food waste was a country it would be the third-largest emitter of green house gases after China and the US,” says Ward. “Eight per cent of green house emissions [come from] food waste … The UN said just 25 per cent of all food gone to waste would be needed to feed people who are malnourished.”

At their Tallaght hub (they also have hubs in Galway and Cork) Ward fetches me some apple juice “gleaned” from surplus apples at harvest time and turned into juice by a place called Apple Farm in Tipperary. They’re obsessed with new ways of using waste food, she says.

O’Brien gives me a high-viz jacket (“in case anyone bangs into you with a forklift”) and shows me around a Radio Nova-soundtracked warehouse and explains where it all comes from.

Sell-by date

Sometimes suppliers or supermarkets make mistakes and over-order or over-deliver. Sometimes, food is perfectly good but is too near its sell-by date for supermarkets to accept. Sometimes there’s a minor problem with the product that doesn’t impinge on food safety. “We got a load of mint chocolate ice cream recently where the chocolate chips hadn’t dispersed evenly in the batch,” she says. “It couldn’t be sold but it was still delicious ice cream.”

Today among many, many other things, there are huge stocks of oranges, lemons, apples, carrots, chicken fillets, several pallets of Lucozade Caribbean Burst (due to go out of date a month later) and a batch of canned chickpeas from Lidl. They regularly get bananas “because they’ve to come a long way and it’s a complicated supply line” and they also frequently get crisps and yogurts because “short-dated products seem to be problematic”.

Some oversupplies are calendar-specific – “If we could convince charities to have Christmas in January it would really help” – and some are a product of geopolitics. “When Brexit happened there was a collapse in the mushroom sector and we had a couple of weeks where we were inundated with mushrooms.”

Sometimes, due to the vagaries of the supply chain, some of the food can be idiosyncratic -like octopus, caramelised almonds, After Eight yogurt (the latter was whipped up into mint cheesecake by an industrious regular). So they depend on imaginative chefs like Trevor Kearns to see the culinary possibilities. Their food safety officer, Karen Capcarrere, a chef herself, often suggests recipes to their customers. “Some charities have done bacon and cabbage on a Monday for 30 years and if we don’t have cabbage they don’t want anything,” says O’Brien. “If we can get creative around the use of surplus as a charity collective we can get more.”

Foodcloud founders Aoibheann O’Brien and Iseult Ward in their Tallaght warehouse. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Foodcloud founders Aoibheann O’Brien and Iseult Ward in their Tallaght warehouse. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Inherent in how Foodcloud works is a catch-22. In highlighting waste they are also helping the food industry tighten up their supply chains. Does that not mean they might run out of surplus food? “The goal should be to cease to exist,” says O’Brien. “I don’t think we’ll get to a point in the future where there’s not enough surplus. But if we hung up our boots in 10 years because our volumes are tanking and the supply chain has gotten really efficient, that would be achieving our mission.”

Addiction service

A Foodcloud delivery has just arrived at the community addiction service Jobstown Assisting Drug Dependency (JADD). They have always run a kitchen and provided hot meals but since liaising with Foodcloud they now also pass out food parcels to service users and members of the community who need it.

These offer creche, childcare, preschool and afterschool facilities that provide safe spaces for children while their parents are getting their methadone or are engaging with counsellors, nurses, doctors, key workers or teachers. “We keep it separate so the child doesn’t have to see the things the parent is struggling with,” says counsellor Rose Dodson, who has worked here for 15 years.

I ask how many of their clients suffer from “food poverty”. Dodson laughs gently at the term. She prefers the word “hungry”. “A lot of them are hungry.”

Addicts don’t look after themselves and are often hungry. For some of the children in their creche the food they receive here is the only hot meal they get in a day. Parents also come in to stock up on the food for school lunches. One day recently they ran out of bags before they ran out of food. “We were robbing the needle-exchange bags and putting food in them,” says Dodson.

“The food parcels are a great way of bridging a gap,” says Shane Hamilton, the co-ordinator at JADD. “It’s that olive branch of trust. ‘I’m not ready to work on my drug addiction… but I am hungry.’”

So some people come in just for food? “Yes,” says Hamilton.

“Then we put the interventions in,” says Dodson. “We sit down beside them and have a chat. ‘How are you? You’re always here.’ Last week we had two guys and a girl. They were hungry first, so the chef said, ‘Would you like something? Would you like me to fry a few eggs and some toast and fried bread?’ There were also pies. We said they could have both. They said ‘Can we?’ And then when they had their food they each went and had a shower.”

After a few visits, says Dodson, those young people might be willing to start discussing their other issues.

In the dining room there’s a table of food at the end of the room and some women are at a table chatting and drinking tea after lunch. A more dishevelled looking man is eating soup and bread near the door. He’s not a service user, notes Dodson, but nobody gets turned away.

Foodcloud’s warehouse in Tallaght. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Foodcloud’s warehouse in Tallaght. Photograph: Dave Meehan

“People are alienated when they’re in addiction,” says Hamilton. “They’re not connected to the community, with the mainstream. You can lose that sense of dignity and self-worth that sitting down with someone else and having a meal gives you.”

Sarah, one of the tea-drinking women, is a recovering addict on a methadone programme. She is also homeless, and for four years now she has come here every day. “I was hitting rock bottom when I came to this building and had a talk,” she says. “My head started to get clearer. I started addressing my problem. People tell you things you were doing and you say, ‘Really?’ ”

'I know when I get up there’s somewhere I can be fed. I left this building yesterday and thought: I feel so stuffed'

She has lived in and out of hostels for years, though she is currently staying with a friend nearby. It’s nice, she says, to be able to bring a bag of food home to her friend. “Yesterday, there were doughnuts, blueberry muffins … You can go off and make a dinner out of what they have here.

And you can come here and get your dinner. Get together over a cup of tea and have a chat, get things off your chest. In another place I went to, you’d just get your methadone and leave. Here you’re linking in with the key workers and keeping yourself safe. I love this building. I’d be lost without it.”

Has she been hungry in the past? “I went without food, yeah. In town there are loads of places but in the Tallaght area there’s not many places for homeless people to go in and eat.”

And now? “I know when I get up there’s somewhere I can be fed. I left this building yesterday and thought: I feel so stuffed.” She laughs. “I’m not complaining. I was happy.”

Migrant teens

At Bellevue Children’s Home, a home for unaccompanied migrant teenagers, Darragh Doyle and Karen Capcarrere from Foodcloud sit with social care worker Caroline Waugh and project manager Robert Radulescu. There are pictures on a board in the hall of teenage boys paintballing, and out in the garden there’s a vegetable patch. The boys who live here are from Afghanistan, Sudan and Albania.

Radulescu stresses how traumatised some of these boys are due to their experience of war or family separation. In this context, he says, “food is very important. They like to keep their traditions. They’re very proud to cook and show it to everyone else … At their religious celebrations you must sit down with them. It would be a huge insult not to.”

“A lot of the lads would sit on the ground [to eat] and we would sit with them,” says Waugh.

Sometimes there’s a language barrier when they’re explaining what they would like. “We use a lot of Google Translate and they show us pictures of fruit and vegetables,” says Robert.

At Bellevue, food is their second-largest expense after wages, and they are particularly eager to see if the organisation can help them source surplus halal food. Doyle and Capcarrere promise to see what they can do. “Food is a link between us and them,” says Radulescu. “Any troubles here, it’s mainly around some items missed in the shopping … You can build relationships around food.”

Little Flower

There’s bingo on in the Little Flower Penny Dinners on Meath Street, and the head chef and operations co-ordinator, Ray Juthan, is being greeted warmly by regulars as he brings us into the relative quiet of the senior dining room. The “little flower” is St Therese of Lisieux, and they have distributed food to people who need it here since 1912. “It’s officially the Little Flower Centre,” says general manager David Kiberd, “but people just call it ‘the Little Flower’, the ‘centre’ just falls off the end.”

Some things have changed. Nowadays they also use the hall for bingo, AA, a ladies’ club, a movie club and various public meetings (at the behest of Dublin City Council). Furthermore, Juthan is another gourmet chef, like Trevor Kearns, who enjoys making the most of Foodcloud’s often idiosyncratic offerings.

Foodcloud’s warehouse in Tallaght. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Foodcloud’s warehouse in Tallaght. Photograph: Dave Meehan

They open Monday to Friday for breakfast and lunch and distribute about 72,000 meals a year. “There’s no judgment,” says Kiberd. “This is a place we like to regard as peaceful and respectful. We don’t care who you are or where you’re from.”

People tend to keep each other in line, he says. “Mick will turn around to Joe, who will turn around to Ivan who’s having a bad day and will say, ‘Your dinner is 25 cents and you don’t have to pay for breakfast, will you shut up!’ ” he laughs. “The Liberties were named ‘The Liberties’ because they made their own laws.”

They have their regulars, and their regulars have their routines. There are four men who come in every day just before the kitchens close and sit together. There’s another man they can never get to leave. There’s an older woman who always wants four mashed potatoes and nothing else. Sometimes, says Kiberd, people come just for a short period of time when things are tough for them. “A young chap came here for a year and would practically apologise to me because he was always suited and booted. He was going out to interviews. Then he got a job and was really pleased and came back to tell us.”

Coffin dodger

Some of their volunteers had issues themselves in the past. One is a former addict, now in college, who often knows and recognises some of the more vulnerable addicts who use the service. He’s an inspiration to them, says Kiberd. Some of their volunteers have been around a long time. “There’s a lady who volunteers and in her words, not ours, she’s known as ‘The Coffin Dodger’.”

Kiberd knows Juthan, who is originally from South Africa, from his days as a chef in a restaurant for which Kiberd did the books. Juthan would make him a meal involving beef medallions that he still salivates over. “He still hasn’t made it here,” he adds sadly.

Juthan has shaken the menus up since coming to work at the Little Flower. Using surplus food he has saved them a lot of money (33 per cent of their food bill, he estimates) but it means he needs to be inventive. Kiberd often comes in the morning to find that the entire menu has changed due to a last minute moment of ingredient-triggered inspiration. Today’s Peking duck was a case in point (the menu for the day also featured French beef casserole). Recently Foodcloud had two cases of hazelnut spread they couldn’t get rid of and Juthan used it to make a chocolate and hazelnut sponge. He has turned an oversupply of Ballymaloe relish into barbecue sauce. He’s currently figuring out what to do with a consignment of very good pulled pork. He’s thinking of doing something with pitta bread.

A lot of good food is thrown away every year and too many people in this country go to bed hungry. Even when the building was unusable during some refurbishment, the Little Flower distributed meals to be taken away. “This place has never shut,” says Kiberd. “There’s always been a need.”

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