Supermarkets Marks and Spencer, Morrisons and Aldi and wholesaler Bidfood are now donating their unsold produce to the Whitley Community Development Association (WCDA) at 252 Northumberland Avenue in Whitley, Reading. The food is available for free; this is not a formal food bank, so neither social services nor any charity has to refer anyone. People do not have to fill out any forms or identify themselves to take the food they can use.
The WCDA’s community development co-ordinator Trisha Bennett had arranged to redistribute surplus food collected from the Morrisons on Basingstoke Road for some time. Last year, WCDA community development worker Maria Cox contacted Neighbourly, a platform that helps business help local communities, who put her in contact with Aldi on the Bath Road and Marks and Spencer in Lower Earley and in the town centre. Bidfood also donated a fridge and freezer to store the more perishable items.
Gathering the surplus food
Maria gets a message before 8pm saying that food can be collected. Both she and WCDA business manager Lisa Alloune shuttle between donating businesses and the Whitley Social Club on Northumberland Avenue, to gather, record, store and, if necessary, freeze the food donations. They finish by about 10pm.
“We never say no to donated food,” said Maria. “We put the [perishable] food at its sell-by date into the freezer.” The WCDA keeps food for up to a month after its sell-by date, but Maria said that they haven’t had to throw away anything yet, and any left-over bread feeds local chickens. “We’re always looking to make sure the food we’re offering is perfectly fine to eat, but we still ask people to open the package and check the food beforehand.”
The WCDA has little control over what they receive and people can only choose from what’s available that day. “We got a big box of oranges the other day that had been delivered [to the supermarket] that very morning, but they couldn’t legally sell them because a date hadn’t been printed on the box,” said Maria Cox. “We had 40 lots of shepherd’s pie that had to be recalled just because the carrots weren’t blanched; they went in our freezer.”
“I counted how much food we had on one day alone, and it came to £800,” said Maria. “And that wasn’t even one of the busiest days. We must pick up between £2000 and £3000 of food [each week] that would otherwise have been put in the bin.”
Trust and engagement
The project has proven a good way of getting people who might be in difficulty to engage with the WCDA, who can then attempt to find the help they need. “This project is about building people’s trust,” said Trisha Bennett. She recounted a local woman in the habit of begging outside nearby shops who had been nervous about coming into the social club and cafe. She now says that since using the surplus food, she has stopped begging.
“Now, she doesn’t just want us to help her, she wants to help us,” added Maria.
Maria recounted how one of the WCDA regulars, who doesn’t normally speak much to anyone, felt compelled to tell some visitors to the cafe that the WCDA had restored his faith in humanity. “He said ‘I’ve been spat on, ridiculed and bullied and these people have shown to me that there is love’ “, reported Maria. “It got to me and I wanted to cry! I kept telling him to stop talking!”
“We’ve had people coming from Southcote, saying they’d heard about us and didn’t have much food, asking if they’d be penalised because they didn’t come from Whitley,” said Maria. The surplus food is available for anyone to use.
Although the food doesn’t cost anything to take away, the WCDA invites people using the service to contribute to the Matthew Farrall defibrillator fund, but this is entirely optional. The WCDA may charge a small amount for non-essential items like cut flowers.