23/05/2018 07:02 BST | Updated 23/05/2018 14:12 BST

This Is How One London Warehouse Is Feeding 484,376 People For Free

'It’s been tough for people for a long time, but it is getting worse and worse.'

A cargo ship full of olive oil is bound for the UK; arriving late at Southampton because of bad weather, customs officials find something wrong with the shipment’s paperwork and refuse to allow it entry. It languishes at the dock for weeks - its cargo undistributed to supermarkets – before it is finally released and allowed to continue its journey. By which point, the food’s strict timestamp has expired and it can no longer be stocked on shelves.

Now what to do with gallons of edible but unsellable oil sitting on a boat?

The food industry regularly ends up with a surplus on its hands thanks to seasonal variation, which might see buyers flooded with a particular crop thanks to a bountiful harvest. Immovable use-by-dates and manufacturer error also leave excess stock stranded without a seller - when a fizzy drink brand reportedly used the incorrect colour on labels, for example, it rendered otherwise good product unsellable.

For consumers, that may seem baffling. But for an industry operating on such a massive scale, such wastage has become standard. It contributes to a huge volume of annual food waste: WRAP, a charity working for sustainable use of resources, estimates 270,000 tonnes of food waste are generated during retail and manufacture, with 100% of retail and 51% of manufacture food waste completely avoidable.

But until the food chain finds a solution, one warehouse in south London is providing an answer. One that helps solve another problem too - food poverty.

Judith Ricketts

FareShare’s London headquarters are a huge 10,000 square feet. “I love seeing the look on people’s faces when they come in, it’s a bit of a tardis” says Susie Haywood from the charity, who is showing me around the warehouse in a quiet industrial estate in Deptford. It backs onto a street of terraced homes and well-tended allotments; I wonder if the people strolling past the warehouse are aware that in 2017 the charity estimates that its contents helped to feed 484,376 people across the UK each week. A figure they are sure has since grown.

“We haven’t seen the exact 2018 statistics yet but we know already it is going to show a massive increase in demand,” explains Haywood. The organisation’s 800 volunteers and 135 employees currently distribute 13,500 tonnes of food a year, via a network of 21 regional centres, to 6,723 local charities who run breakfast clubs, homeless hostels, women’s refuges and other places in need of ingredients to prepare hot meals.

Demand for FareShare services has increased so much in recent years that there’s now a waiting list of charities wanting help. 

FareShare has, in the past, had to defend itself against arguments that it institutionalises food poverty. But CEO Lindsay Boswell is clear: “If for some reason food poverty went away, we would close up the doors and go.”

Food poverty isn’t just about those without the financial means to access food, explains Haywood, but families where parents are working three jobs, unable to go home, and make sure their children have breakfast before they leave home in the morning. Those who can’t pay their utility bills so are unable to turn the oven on. Pensioners with early-stage dementia who forget to feed themselves. Others are victims of domestic violence left couch surfing without any access to food. “People are unaware of the extent of food poverty,” she adds. “It’s been tough for a long time but it is getting worse and worse.”

We move our conversation inside the giant refrigerator, storing meats, dairy and other perishable goods to be sent out today. I glimpse of a box that has been labelled to be sent to the primary school I’ve encountered before - a school in the top 100 performing in England, and where the number of students entitled to free school meals is only 20%, compared to a national average of 25%. Somewhere I never would have expected to be needing help.

Among those to have benefitted from FareShare’s work is 17-year-old Nick Makris from Manchester. Nick, who has autism, had been mute due to his severe social anxiety until he was signed up to a food programme at The Grange School. He helps prepare and serve meals to elderly people and has now started to speak, an intervention his teachers think would not have been possible without the food programme. 

And what about the volunteers, people who give up their time to drive vans and undertake hours of intensive manual labour? I meet Richard, 54, who travels across London once a week to assist as a driver, having given up his full-time career in the arts industry because he felt burned out. “I wanted to do something good, and it’s nice to be doing physical work,”he explains. Other volunteers commute more than 50 miles. 

It isn’t just individuals who give their time here: we pass a group of 10, decked out in high-vis jackets as they are briefed, who are here for a corporate workday.

We wander down the final aisle of the warehouse where it seems the more unusual items that FareShare receives are being stored. A bargain-bucket-esque collection of cat litter, fire lighters and toilet roll. (The latter will be distributed to those in need). 

“That’s nothing,” says Haywood. “We’ve had chocolate body paint and camel’s milk in here before...there’s this idea that if you’re poor you don’t deserve to have fancy food, and that’s just not true.”

Want to get involved? You can volunteer at a regional Fareshare centre to help sort surplus food, deliver food to local charities and help in the office. Your company can also do a corporate team day, by applying here