Leadership Diaries: "People seek us out to find kindred spirits"

Mary McGrath, CEO at FoodCycle details a week in her life and the listening, meeting and travelling that entails.

Monday 7 June 2022

I spend an afternoon at FoodCycle Hartlepool meeting volunteers rescuing surplus food and taking it back to a community kitchen on Kilmarnock Road where they turn it into a delicious three-course meal for people who are at risk of loneliness and food poverty. On this particular occasion, they rescued lots of carrots, potatoes, tomatoes and parsnips, as well as coconuts. Volunteer Simon is a chef and comes regularly to help the team cook really imaginative things.

A team of five of us get stuck in, chopping, peeling - cooking up a fresh tomato soup with basil and pepper; a stir-fry with noodles with lots of beautiful roasted veggies. For pudding banana bread and FoodCycle favourite, bread and butter pudding.

I sit with a group of guests who tell me that some local food banks have started charging for tins. They are worried that FoodCycle will do the same, but I assure them that our meals will remain free to all. We are in the midst of a cost of living crisis and those we serve seem to be feeling the pinch, but at least they will get one hot meal today.

One lady tells me she used to live in Lincoln and, at the height of lockdown, her daughter had to drive 400 miles round trip from Hartlepool to change her light bulb. She moved here but misses her friends so comes to FoodCycle for company.

Tuesday 8 June

Tuesday morning, busy diary today. First thing I meet with my finance manager to go through her report of accounts, look at expenditure and where we’re increasing our spend. We notice we’re spending more on kitchen equipment as we expand and with prices rising. We are also feeling the effects of the price hikes on food which is partly due to less surplus food supply from supermarkets because people are buying up all the reduced to clear items. This is fantastic news for the issue of food waste, but it means need to purchase more ingredients than usual. Something else we note is that more volunteers are claiming expenses particularly petrol; perhaps further indication that the cost of living is taking its toll.

That night I visit new Project FoodCycle Middlesborough and meet the brilliant team led by the talented Ruth. Eight volunteers in the kitchen cook a delicious salad with croutons and cheese; a beautiful pasta bake; then meringues with fresh food salad and white chocolate sauce. We welcome 30 people and I try to talk to as many as I can; a few that are clearly homeless, families and a lady forced to live with her friend because of domestic violence. She was clearly nervous but was delighted she’d come because she’d enjoyed the food and company. I’m reminded that sometimes people simply come to forget about their troubles for the night, or to share them with another person.

Wednesday 9 June

In Newcastle today, where we’re being assessed by one of our grant funders at FoodCycle Walker. It’s a lunchtime meal so the team is full of retired people and plenty of ladies who have volunteered with us for a number of years. I notice how much encouragement they give each other, particularly a new volunteer who is learning English. Everyone keeps an eye on her, helping her pronounce names of ingredients and encouraging her to be creative to build her confidence. They also know the guests incredibly well. Project leader Jane, who has racked up a staggering 750 hours with us, sits me next to a man from El Salvador. Through limited English he tells me with tears in his eyes that bandits took his farm and murdered his family leading him to become a refugee living in Newcastle with his granddaughter. It’s a harrowing story but I’m glad I was there to hear it.

In the evening I’m at Leeds Beeston, another new project in a really deprived part of Leeds where we host a weekly free meal in a community hall beside a mosque. We get in to the kitchens at 5.30pm and work our socks off to have dinner ready by 6.30pm. It’s lovely to see the diversity of the guests mixing with each other and having a lovely time. The amount of surplus food we collect is phenomenal on this particular night – we have a glut of bananas, grapes, apples and satsumas so we make a fruit salad with yoghurt; a delicately spiced veggie curry by yours truly and a vegetable soup. The guests report back there’s too much pepper in the soup, one to remember next time!

Thursday 10 June

In Manchester at the offices of one of our trustees, Mark Game of The Bread and Butter Thing, who we work with across a number of our Projects. Mark is an expert in sourcing surplus food so we discuss that and the cost of living crisis. Like us, they are seeing more demand for their service.

Afterwards, a zoom meeting with Carly Head of Marketing who is thrilled that our new website is live. The improved version is more user friendly and hopefully offers a fantastic experience for volunteers and guests; as well as donors. Also have an update from my Head of Fundraising; have a look at the volunteer rotas and guest numbers which are rising - a sign of the times.

That evening I’m at FoodCycle Levenshulme where I meet an inspirational lady called Jacqueline who is responsible for many of Manchester’s food projects through her company Blossom. She tells me about getting local people to grow food and initiatives teaching people how to cook, bringing people together to improve mental health and give them skills and confidence much like the work we do at FoodCycle with volunteers. We discuss ways to work together and cross promote via our respective audiences.

At the meal that night, I’m approached by volunteer Mimi who tells me she used to help out at FoodCycle Westgate but had to stop because she was getting married and moved to Manchester with her husband. When she arrived she knew no one so she searched for a local FoodCycle and was overjoyed to find one nearby. She looks forward to coming all week and said she loves getting in the kitchen with the other volunteers. It was heartwarming to hear that people seek us out because they know they will find kindred spirits and make friends.

Friday 11 June

I have a Zoom meeting with my head of fundraising first thing. We are putting together a major application to go to a funder that has approached us to help with our expansion and recruitment of volunteers in the Yorkshire/East Midlands area, as well as the South East. We also discuss a Gala we want to organize next year as part of our 2023 fundraising plan and talk about a major potential corporate partner coming on board. We are keen to get money in sooner rather then later so that we are ready in the autumn we’re going to see the effects of the current cost increases and the predicted rise of energy bills in October.

After I head off to meet Matthew, our regional manger for Yorkshire, Teeside and The Humber. Mathew joined us a year ago and works remotely, so it’s a rare treat to see him face to face. He is doing brilliantly, having launched four Projects and recruiting lots of brilliant volunteers and really helping to grow our presence in the region. We identify a three-year growth strategy and discuss the grant we are applying for; it’s a great meeting and I’m reminded again how invested the FoodCycle team are in connecting communities across the country.


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