Social Justice

FoodCycle: The community meal where refugees, ex-prisoners and old friends break bread together

FoodCycle runs community meals across the country and works to tackle food waste, poverty and loneliness all at once. The Big Issue headed to one of their meals in Wandsworth

FoodCycle guest

Joseph Chandler, a guest at FoodCycle. Image: The Big Issue

A man who spent more than a decade in prison, an Iraqi refugee who cannot afford food and three old friends trying to kill a couple of hours eat together in a community hall in South London.

It is a small, almost bare room with little natural light. People file in one by one. Some sit on their own and others sit next to each other at the tables with red chequered tablecloths, either in silence or chatting between themselves.

This is one of the community meals run twice a week in this Stockwell site by charity FoodCycle, which strives to end loneliness, food poverty and food waste across the country. It provides a community to people who otherwise might have no one around them.

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Joseph Chandler is one of the first to arrive, and he sits alone in the centre of the room. He lights up as he looks around for people to speak to and gives me a big, gappy smile. Right away, he wants to show me pictures of his two dogs who are his closest companions.

I ask him what led him to FoodCycle, and he immediately gets into it. “This is going to get a bit deep,” Chandler says. “I was coming back from a party in the 80s and I got into a bit of a row and I stabbed the geezer and I went to prison for 12 years.

“When I came out, I thought: ‘I’m never going back to that place, whatever happens.’ I never did. But I started messing around the block and getting in more trouble. And for some reason, out of the blue I went to Penny, the vicar, and I said I needed some help. 

“I started going to church. I was Christened in 2019 and, in 2022, I got confirmed. Now I do lots of volunteering work through the church and I really enjoy it. Around here, they know me so well.”

Chandler gestures to the room around us, which backs on to the local church. He plays bingo with people from the church every Thursday and does what he can to help his neighbours. “I just try to keep myself clean.”

FoodCycle is a place where people like Chandler can come for some company and a hot meal. Hosted all over the country, they feed the hungry and give company to the lonely with meals prepared by volunteers from surplus food that would otherwise have gone to waste. 

Today’s menu is bubble and squeak, a pasta mishmash and fruit salad with custard. It’s made by volunteers who don’t have any formal training, but they put a lot of love into their meals (even if it doesn’t always get the best of responses from guests. One not-quite-jokingly cries out: ‘I’m not eating this!’ as she’s served her starter). 

A volunteer preparing a meal at another site run by FoodCycle. Image: FoodCycle

They have a big task on their hands to create meals each week out of a random batch of ingredients. They don’t know what they’re going to get, or how many people are going to turn up. It could be as many as 40, but today it’s around half of that. 

It’s the first day of winter that snow has fallen in London. Some of the guests come for the warmth of the old rickety heaters, and others won’t want to leave their homes and step out into the cold. Many of them are just coming for the company.

More than 3 million people in the UK face chronic loneliness, meaning they feel lonely often or always, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness. Research shows that poverty is linked with loneliness and the cost of living crisis is making the situation worse. 

Around a third of UK adults (35%) have suffered severe negative impacts on their social life as rising costs prevent them from seeing friends and family, according to research from Which?



Maria, who fled war in Iraq with her family, is struggling to cope. “My husband is sick by heart,” she explains. “They do operation. When he came from hospital, he had to live from home. It’s damp in the house, so my brother has taken him. They try to get him temporary accommodation, but they gave him a second floor and he can’t go up.

“My situation is so bad. Even my son, they stop his benefit because he is now 16. I have problem with housing. My husband is sick. I sleep on the floor now on a mattress.”

FoodCycle helps her to meet people and she can find advice from others in similar situations. “My life in the past was so stressful,” Maria says. “For more than 10 years, we have war. I feel scared. Even when there is noise in the sky, I wake up.”

But she finds hope in interacting with other people at this community meal. She shows me dozens of pictures of her “very clever” son through the years. I get the sense that she just wants to talk, as she doesn’t touch her bubble and squeak as we chat, in spite of my insistence.

In the corner of the room, three pensioners sit together laughing between each other. They are creatures of habit, going to the same seats twice a week. Sometimes they play cards together, but today they just enjoy each other’s company. 

Two of them have been friends for more than three decades, since 1988 when they used to be motorcyclists together. “It’s a good relationship with people here,” one of the men says. 

One of the guests at another FoodCycle site. Image: FoodCycle

“It’s somewhere to go, I suppose. I’m now an OAP, according to the government, so I’ve got more time on my hands. I wasn’t doing a great deal, so it gets me out the flat.”

His friend agrees. “It’s something to do on a Friday afternoon. We come on Wednesdays as well.”

But they are all very grateful to the volunteers, who sit and enjoy the meal alongside them in their welcoming way, and staff at FoodCycle for putting it on twice a week. 

“It’s a food bank as well,” the one man says. There are bags of leftover food which are handed out to the guests as they leave. “They don’t get any money for it.”

I leave the community hall and the guests I’ve met with mixed feelings of sadness and hope. FoodCyle shouldn’t be needed – people should be getting the help they need to look after their mental health and they should be receiving the financial support they need to afford food.

But there is a lot of good to be found here too. FoodCycle has built a community which welcomes everyone, regardless of their background or experiences – whether you are a prison leaver, refugee or old friends. They are brought together by food and conversation. And when we live in a society where people are so often shunned for being different, that is something we should cherish. 

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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