Charlotte Hill, the chief executive of the Felix Project, brims with enthusiasm as she speaks about the charity's work. Image: The Big Issue
Music blares through the kitchen of this East London warehouse as volunteer chefs busily chop fresh vegetables. They prepare thousands of meals each day, which are boxed up and distributed to food banks, domestic violence refuges and homeless shelters across the capital.
In this buzz of positivity and smiles, it is easy to forget the bleak backdrop. Nearly one in three Londoners are living in poverty and the cost of living crisis has driven many people into debt with nothing left to sacrifice. This food is a lifeline for vulnerable people.
The Big Issue was invited to one of the four depots run by The Felix Project: a charity at the heart of fighting hunger and food waste in the capital. It rescues fresh and nutritious food from the bins of supermarkets, restaurants and farms – perfectly good food which might have a broken barcode or be wonkier than usual.
Charlotte Hill, the chief executive of The Felix Project, has an infectious enthusiasm which shines through as she talks about the charity’s mission. “We have an absolutely incredible impact,” she says.
“That impact is both environmental, because the food that we rescue would go to waste and that would be terrible for the environment, but also we have amazing social impact with that food. I’ve never worked for an organisation which has been so directly impactful on both sides.”
This is what drives people to The Felix Project, from the volunteers stacking food in the warehouse to the team of kitchen staff who cook up to 5,000 meals a day. Will Griffiths, the deputy head of kitchen, is a trained chef and started out as a volunteer but now works full time for the charity.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in what we do,” he tells The Big Issue, “because we never know what’s coming in in terms of the food supply and who is going to come in and help us do it, so we’re always problem solving and smoothing out those peaks and troughs in terms of food and people.”
In 2022, The Felix Project delivered the equivalent of 29 million meals. It saved more than 12,100 tonnes of food from going in the bin. And it had more than 8,500 volunteers.
But the charity has faced hard times too. The cost of living crisis means demand is higher than ever before, and it’s been coupled with food shortages over the last year. “We have found the cost of living crisis has had an even bigger impact than Covid,” Hill says. “Everybody thought that the pandemic was the crisis of our times.
“More people are struggling to put food on the table now than even then. People who have never needed help before are coming and needing support.”
Every year, food aid organisations worry about winter. But Hill fears that this winter will be tougher than ever after nearly two years of a crisis which has left people in debt and unable to sacrifice any more. The charity works with 1,000 community organisations, and all of them are already asking for more food.
But there is a lot of hope to be found in The Felix Project. Just east of the Poplar depot in Stratford, young people decided to set up their own food bank. Stratford Youth Pantry was launched earlier this year by kids and teenagers determined to feed the most vulnerable people in their area and change lives.
There are 13 young people running the food pantry, supported by their local youth centre Stratford Youth Zone. They got in touch with The Felix Project and worked in partnership to create the project.
“It’s been a tremendous help to us because without it there would be no food pantry,” says Cat Phillips, a youth worker helping support the project. “Sometimes it’s food families are not able to get. Sometimes it’s things they have never been able to try before, maybe they haven’t been able to afford it or it’s just not been accessible. It’s given a whole opportunity to different kinds of foods and tastes.”
They have been given 2,089kg of food since May, the equivalent of 5,860 meals. The Felix Project has a real focus on fresh and nutritious food, which is vital considering that’s what tends to be the most unaffordable and inaccessible for people living in poverty and relying on food aid.
The young people are learning about food and have all completed their food hygiene certificates – with the youngest, aged just 10, the first to complete it. They have often taken food which they might never have had the opportunity to cook before home for their own families.
“It’s open to all young people in the borough and any families and our local community,” Phillips adds. “Young people have been going out into the street, and they had their banner and were talking to people about what it is that they do and what it is and who can access it. It’s been amazing, the different people that we’ve met and being part of our community and giving back.”