Robin Campbell, St James’s Food Hospitality Outreach Coordinator, talks about FEAST and food surplus redistribution.
After a three-course FEAST meal one Monday night which included pan seared duck breast with orange sauce given to us by City Harvest, one guest exclaimed to me ‘this meal is fit for a king!’. I thought about that comment later on, after we’d folded up the gingham tablecloths, packed down the trestle tables and said goodbye to the last of the guests and volunteers as they made their way back out into a cold November’s night. There was a strange contrast in the fact that Buckingham Palace sat less than a mile away from a church full of people experiencing homelessness. It made me think of how the institution of the monarchy influences a language of status which reaches as far as food. And yet food in its most basic form is a necessity for survival, a universal language for us all, a common ground, an equaliser, not a divider. But when some of us don’t have as much access to food as others, it becomes a political issue. The very existence of food banks is an example of a failed system.
But why shouldn’t everyone enjoy food ‘fit for a king’? That duck breast was saved from a supermarket which would have otherwise thrown it away because it was considered surplus and was going to expire the following day. The corporate grip on the food chain has resulted in record amounts of food waste, particularly in the global north. In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third biggest greenhouse gas emitter.
During my time volunteering and working with food banks and food hubs during the pandemic, I became aware of the massive effort between food banks and food surplus redistribution agencies to marry the excess supply with the excess need. I’d often speak to new faces that were using the food hubs who would tell me that it was their first time using one. These were often the people who would take as little as possible, insisting that they wanted there to be enough for the next person. I found it intriguing that many people from typically food-secure households shared this innate sense of food hierarchy and their place in it. When I would remind them that there is an environmental impetus to save and eat the food that would otherwise be binned, I could see the cogs whirring. Food redistribution is not just a charitable venture for those that are the worst off, it’s a shared responsibility for the future of our planet. Although, as George Monbiot notes in his book Regenesis;
‘Redistributing surplus food is controversial. The celebrated cook and community organiser Dee Woods notes that ‘leftover people get leftover food’. She makes an important point: it would be abominable if hungry people were treated as a kind of waste-disposal system, assuaging social guilt about the food we squander. But because charities’ budgets are so strained and surplus food costs much less than purchased food, there are strong pragmatic reasons to use it. No one who cares about poverty and hunger wants things to be as they are. But these are structural problems, which require structural solutions’
Feast sees many regulars but increasingly many new faces too. People with all sorts of stories and backgrounds and niche interests. I was once told from a table host that one of their guests considered themselves a satanist and, in the spirit of ultra-progressive St James’s, another table host exclaimed, ‘well, all are welcome in the house of god!’. This to me is the spirit of Feast – wholehearted acceptance and the ability to take everyone at face value and embrace them for all their uniqueness. To be seen and to be heard is a very basic right, but it is this visibility and autonomy that the people who walk through the gates at Feast and Sunday Breakfast so rarely receive in their day to day lives. I’ve overheard many an interesting conversation on some of the tables at Feast, from highbrow chat about Grinling Gibbons and the architecture of the church to intense political discussions around the economically rocky two weeks of a short lived PM, to conversations about fashion and what exactly is a ‘shacket?’ There are enough specialist subjects in one evening of Feast to keep the BBC’s Mastermind running for an entire series.
There is celebration to be had in all our variety, and while we may not have the individual means to end the very need for services such as these, sharing all our curiosities over a two-course meal while collectively doing our bit to combat food waste is not a bad place to start.
Feast runs on Monday evenings from 5.30pm – 8.30pm and Sunday Breakfast runs from 7.15am – 10.30am. If you would like to volunteer with either of these projects, please email Robin on email@example.com