Suzy Holding, Project Manager of the Letchworth based charity, Best Before Café, speaks to us this Volunteers Week about how important it is to volunteer.
How it started
I was inspired by the real-life story in the 2016 film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, to volunteer at Letchworth Foodbank. I was shaken and saddened by the story of a man who is signed off from work by a doctor but is deemed fit to work and so cannot access the appropriate benefits to survive. When volunteering in the warehouse for the Foodbank, I wondered how people accessed fresh fruit and vegetables to accompany the tinned and dried food they received. I’d heard about Random Cafe, a food surplus project in Watford, and I did some internet research on the various food surplus projects around the country.
This research also provided me with a deeper understanding of the amount of food we waste in the UK. The scale of the problem horrified me as I found out more. Food waste in the UK costs us £19 billion a year and it is shocking to see the damage rotting food does to our environment. For example, if we stopped throwing away food in our home for one day it’d do the same for climate change as taking 14,000 cars off the road for a year. Wasted food accounts for more global greenhouse gases than flying!
As my research widened, I realised that setting up a town project to provide a practical and efficient way of reducing food waste by feeding families was necessary. Although, in order to work, absolutely everyone needed to be involved as there was and is so much food to share.
A team of volunteers and I started planning to start a food surplus project for Letchworth in January 2018 and we opened for the first time on 4th July of that year.
Now in 2021, our volunteers collect surplus unsold edible food deemed as ‘waste’ from supermarkets and local businesses. We share the food with our community at our shop in the Garden Square Shopping Centre, Letchworth, Letchworth Foodbank, local Family Centres and outdoor food stalls in and around Letchworth.
The importance of volunteering
I think volunteering is all about direct action, be it large or small. If you spot injustice, inequality or something that needs doing there’s a lasting satisfaction and sense of empowerment in getting stuck into becoming part of a positive solution and an agent of change.
For example, food waste is a national problem and the cafe volunteer team and the people who come to us are a practical solution to this problem. We think a food surplus project is vital in every town, village or hamlet. It’s important from an environmental and a social standpoint.
There is so much food surplus that a project like ours can share affordable food with everybody regardless of circumstance. It’s also about food accessibility, equality and a fair distribution of food. Everyone has the right to food. The whole community can be part of our positive solution to these issues. What’s not to like about protecting the planet AND feeding the family!
The advice I would give to someone thinking of setting up a volunteer group is, does your idea align with the values and hopes of your community? You must make your project relevant, positive and a joy to be a part of.
Also, ask for advice, information, and support from bodies such as the Heritage Foundation, your local council, and your community. We knew nothing at the start of our journey, we just had to find it out. The advice is usually free of charge, it’s just a matter of seeking it out.
Lastly, try to maintain financial sustainability, this gives your project longevity and independence. If you find this difficult; be accountable and measure impact so that you can tell your success stories.