Stage a protest
“I’ve had a few labels in my life: juvenile delinquent, maladjusted, crook, coke head, alky, drug dealer and prison reject..” So says Gary Staniforth, another of the fantastic characters who I met recently while making portraits for the Media Trust. I did wonder if I was crazy traveling all the way to Bradford with my then 6 month old son to meet this guy, but it was well worth the nine hour round trip. In recent years Gary has turned his life around in a remarkable way.
Four years ago Gary was homeless, addicted to cocaine and dealing drugs. Gary is very open about the childhood that led him there: a father who was violent when drunk, and being taken into care age 8, certainly contributed to his downfall. While in care he was subjected to emotional and physical abuse. He remembers being made to stand outside all night in his pyjamas in the rain, and being jumped on by support workers from table height. This horrific treatment unsurprisingly made the adult Gary angry and unwilling to trust.
Gary had three children of his own, but after 17 years his relationship broke down and he felt he must leave his family home. He stayed on the floors of friends and family for some time but eventually lost his job, partly due to the instability of his living circumstances. In 2008 Gary found himself living in a Salvation Army hostel, unable to spend the time that he wanted with his children, and with no prospect of the situation changing soon. He didn’t qualify for any “high priority” housing lists, and says, like many other single males in the hostel, he felt like the “hidden homeless”.
“I remember wandering around the town centre, feeling isolated and alone, desperate and like my life was over. The pain of being separated from my kids was unbearable. I was angry and frustrated but tired and weak with it all, ready to just give up. I very nearly joined the Salvation Army residents drinking club but knew I had to do something. So, I got myself some cardboard, wrote out some slogans and stood on the City Hall steps in protest in the rain, snow and sleet. I was on my own for 2 days and then a couple more from the hostel joined me. For 3 weeks every day we sat on the City Hall steps collecting signatures and talking to people.”
Gary and his friends collected over 300 signatures and handed them to the council. He wanted to highlight the fact that single males like himself who aren’t in any drug rehabilitation programme, or probation scheme, or on other priority housing list feel forgotten and discriminated against. Gary was asked to speak to the next council meeting and his words received a standing ovation. This was when Gary’s life started to turn around.
After being rehoused, he was asked to contribute to Bradford Council’s homeless core group, and various other service user committees. He’s completed an NVQ with the Chartered Institute of Housing. Gary has led several creative projects with the aim of destigmatising homelessness and providing homeless people with a creative outlet. He helped put together a book called “Forgotten” which was nominated and highly commended at the national charity awards in London 2010. He was also involved in a film called “Hidden Voices” and a billboard campaign around the Bradford District. He is the editor of a magazine and he is now setting up his own social enterprise “The Hidden Homeless”, which will work with homeless people to renovate disused properties around Bradford and bring them back into use.
Gary is infectiously enthusiastic for his projects and the direction his life is taking. “Now I have a few labels I’m proud of,” says Gary, “Active citizen, community learning champion, service user rep, company director, magazine editor and friend.” I bet his kids are proud of him too.
Stop food waste
Every year, UK supermarkets throw out at least 100,000 tonnes of food which is still safe to eat. It’s a shocking figure when considered against a backdrop of global poverty and environmental degradation. Tony Lowe is the chief executive of FareShare, an organisation which aims to be part of the solution to this profligacy.
FareShare takes waste food from manufacturers and retailers, that is still within its sell by date, and feeds 26,000 people daily. It keeps to the same hygiene standards of any mainstream distributor and ensures that the food remains appropriately frozen, chilled or at ambient temperature. FareShare then redistributes the produce to organisations who look after people with no or low income: Homeless hostels, substance misuse projects, breakfast clubs for children, centres for refugees or the elderly. Eager not to create dependence on free food, FareShare’s wares are only available to people who are willing to accept other services to help them out of the poverty trap.
Tony greeted me in his tiny windowless office in the middle of FareShare’s Bermondsey warehouse. It reminded me of another windowless office which I visited five years ago to talk to Robert Egger, a man who has also made a business out of waste food. In his pinstriped suit, Tony has the look of a corporate manager and I get the feeling the image is intentional. “People expect a charity to be rubbish, but we have very strong processes and systems to ensure that all the food is safe. Showing that this thing is viable and doable has been tough, but now we have an industrial operation and we don’t have to prove ourselves every day,” he explained. You can tell that Tony has to spend a lot of his day talking. When he’s not trying to generate the 3 million pounds of capital they need to reach their target of feeding 100,000 people a day, he is working with all the majors in the food manufacturing and retail industry. They take food and drink from Coca Cola, Nestle and Pepsico along with many other manufacturers and big supermarket chains. These companies can and do send people to check on FareShare’s warehouses at any time.
Tony had the perfect background to take FareShare from a project within its “parent” charity Crisis in 2003 to become an independent enterprise. He had experience both in retailing and the not-for-profit sector. He has worked for Marks and Spencers and Alliance Unichem as well as Oxfam’s trading arm. He also ran his own business for a year but found “the stress of working for myself was too much.” Having sold that business he went to work for Waitrose again as a department manager. “After a year, I had already decided that I no longer wanted to be in the mainstream retail sector. I was delighted when an agency contacted me and said they were trying to find a director for FareShare. The job was made for me!”
FareShare are trying to make their operation into a profitable business by charging the industry for taking their food away. “They would have to pay to dispose of the food anyway. At the moment 20 companies pay us and it gives us 7% of our income. In the future we hope that it will give us half,” Tony explained. The problem with payment is the complexity of who is responsible for the waste food but FareShare are determined to overcome these barriers. For the first time government is also considering funding part of FareShare’s operations. It’s a big step forward for Tony and his team.
FareShare has grown enormously under Tony’s watch. “We started with 6 staff and a turn over of £300,000. Now we have 17 staff and a turn over of £1.6 million. We have 13 depots and 300 people volunteer for us every day.” Volunteering is an important part of the business model. The vast majority of volunteers start out as members of the “client group” who receive food. FareShare offers them work experience and certificated education that will help them get back to work.
Sadly, at a time when the organisations FareShare works with need food more than ever, the economic downturn is making fund raising increasingly difficult. “Individual giving is dropping off, corporates have less money to give, trusts and foundations have lost so many of their assets that they are also losing their giving power.” But Tony remains determined: “We’re a bit disappointed that we can’t grow faster this year. Everything is already done on a shoestring. But I’m bloody minded and I will make it happen. What drives me is that I know the difference that it makes. I’ve seen what good the food does.”
FareShare seems like such a brilliant way to reduce some of our society’s terrible waste, while giving decent food to people who need it. I really hope that it remains a funding priority and FareShare will achieve its three year ambition to open 17 more depots across the country. In the meantime Tony urges us to “Ask questions of organisations that your involved with. Ask what’s happening to waste food and if there’s fit for purpose food going to waste, go and ask the person in charge what they’re doing about it!”
Make a business out of other people’s waste
Robert Egger is founder and CEO of DC Central Kitchen. The Kitchen is located behind one of the largest homeless hostels in the United States, in a run-down neighbourhood of Washington DC. I couldn’t find the entrance and the streetscape around was desolate and threatening. The few pedestrians were black and evidently homeless. As a seven-months pregnant white women, riding a bike and carrying a large and expensive camera, I desperately wanted to look like I knew where I was going. So I headed straight into the main hostel entrance, where the security guard was on the telephone. As I waited for him to finish, I realised he was talking about a homicide that had just taken place on site. Whoever Robert Egger is, I could tell already that he wasn’t someone who liked to change the world from an ivory tower.
Armed with the guard’s directions, I eventually found the loading bay which serves as the entrance to DC Central Kitchen. It was crowded with small vans. One of the men unloading food into the vast store-rooms showed me to Robert’s tiny, windowless office in the centre of the bustling kitchen. DC Central Kitchen, which feeds the homeless using left-over food from local restaurants, was opened in 1989 and now feeds 4000 hungry homeless people a day. It has also given culinary training to 450 unemployed men and women since 1990, to help them back into work. Fresh Start Catering – run from the same location – employs the Kitchen’s trainees to cater for private clients around the city, and its profits are ploughed back into the Kitchen’s charitable activities.
It was immediately clear that Robert was nowhere near as intimidating as his environs. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the United States non-profit sector, and it was easy to see why: he came across as dynamic, enthusiastic, thoughtful and caring. Not to mention talkative. Like a ball at the top of a hill, I found I needed only to give him a nudge and he would run for a very long time.
So, as a former nightclub owner, what had made Robert turn his entrepreneurial flair to satisfying lines of hungry homeless people rather than queues of eager clubbers?
One night Robert went out with a friend feeding homeless people on the streets of DC. “Did not want to go. Got kind of cornered by people. You know. ‘Come on! You’ve got to go. It’ll be great.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. OK, OK.’” Robert was shocked to discover that the organisation he was helping that evening was buying food, even though this was the mid-eighties, when extravagant receptions everywhere were leaving tonnes of left overs. He was also surprised to discover that nothing was being done to help these homeless long term. Robert reluctantly realised that he had the vision and the skills required to do a better job. “It was one of those moments where you get to a crossroads. In other words it was like: ‘If I don’t do it no-one will.’”
That evening made him look with new eyes at his community in DC, and he encourages others who want to make a difference to do the same: “There is not a business person in the world, nor a general that would go into a new business or a battle without a sense of ‘What’s my budget? What is my inventory? What do I have to work with?’ Start adding it up. Look again! Stretch! Think!” Robert could see – where others could not – how to pull together the resources he needed. “America throws away 25% of what it produces every day. Most people see that as trash, we see it as gasoline for this engine. Most people looked at the people standing in line to get food and thought ‘Woah! There but for the grace of God go I’ and we’re like ‘Those are workers’.” Always ready with a snappy sound bite, Robert sums up what’s necessary. “You got to get practical. Say what you’re going to do and do what you say. Nirvana was a great band but it’s a horrible mission statement.”
Drawing on his experience of promoting nightclubs, Robert cannily planned the Kitchen’s opening to coincide with the inauguration of George Bush senior, having persuaded the organisers of his first presidential party to donate the left over food. “I knew there was an urban myth about hotels not being able to donate food, and that was hard to dispel. What better way to shoot down that myth than to get the President of the United States to donate food from the inauguration?” Now the Kitchen has its homeless trainee chefs bake cakes for every presidential inauguration: “No media guy in the world can resist that,” he says with a smile.
Correctly suspecting that I may prefer not to sit still for too long in my heavily pregnant state, Robert offers to take me on a guided tour. The scene is typical of any large and busy catering operation: acres of stainless steel, chefs in whites and clouds of steam as ovens open and close and pans bubble. In between liberally showering his employees with praise – “amazing man”, he says of colleague showing the ropes to a bunch of student volunteers – he tells me how he went one better with George Bush senior’s successor in the White House, by actually persuading Bill Clinton to come to the Kitchen and volunteer.
The volunteers, he explains, are an essential part of the grand plan. “We do not need a single volunteer to get our job done but every year we bring in seven to eight thousand and that is how we fight hunger.” Why? Robert hopes that volunteering will help remove prejudices as it did with some doctors who volunteered alongside a homeless man called Joseph. “Joseph looked at them and I think he saw all the things he could never be, and it reinforced this notion of, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? You fucked up everything in your life, you’re just going to fuck up this.’ And in the doctors’ eyes here was this homeless guy with a knife. And so each side had these stereotypes that were affecting their ability to take the next step. But I came back fifteen minutes later and the big neat was that Joseph knew something they didn’t know. He knew how to julienne and cut a carrot. They didn’t. And when he realised ‘I know something they don’t know’ and vice versa, the walls came down, and that was one of those eureka moments at the kitchen. We call it the ‘calculated epiphany’.”
“My hope,” he continues, “is that these volunteers leave saying, ‘Oh my goodness, why don’t we do that? I didn’t think that was possible’”. Of bringing in President Clinton, he says: “I wanted people to wake up in Des Moines, Iowa saying ‘Hey, honey come and look at this. I didn’t know homeless people could do that.’ I don’t want people to watch and say, ‘Wow the Kitchen’s great. I’ll write them a cheque.’ That would be great if they did, but that’s not the point. It’s more important to liberate them from their old stereotypical mind frames.” Robert hopes that their work will keep sparking people into “calculated epiphanies” and bring them on-side. “I don’t want to tell people what to think. If I go out and say ‘you should la la bla bla’ they won’t hear me.” That’s why, when Fresh Start caters for an event, Robert insists that the organisers don’t mention to the guests that the food is made by formerly homeless people until after they’ve enjoyed it.
Robert’s calculated pursuit of epiphanies has paid spectacular dividends: there are now Campus Kitchens run out of dozens of universities around the United States, and a sister project called Community Kitchens in Schools. Back in Robert’s tiny office, I try to find out what drives the person responsible for these far-reaching achievements. He is charmingly self deprecating, insisting “I’m not smart. I barely graduated from high school. And I’ve always had good management here because I don’t run all this myself – I mean, I can do it, but I’m just not good at the day-to-day stuff. My attention span’s not that long. I’m not disciplined that way.”
When I point out that he nevertheless has an obvious knack for business and ask why he didn’t simply stay in the nightclub trade and make himself richer, it’s clear that he finds this as interesting a question as I do. “Over the years I’ve plumbed my soul on numerous occasions. You know, it’s not like I have some deep love for my fellow man, that I want to help the poor.” Music has had its influence on the way he views the world, judging by how often he reaches for quotes from his favourite bands – notably John Lennon’s acerbic view of mass culture in Working Class Hero: “Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV / And you think you’re so clever and classless and free”. And although the catholic nuns who schooled him probably weren’t intending to produce a nightclub-owning Lennon devotee, they too had a deep impact on his psyche. “It’s probably a merger of that kind of weird, missionary, ‘save-pagan-babies’ ethos of catholic school,” he concludes, “with punk music and just rock and roll in general.”
If he’s not so sure about his motivations, one thing that Robert is sure about is how you work with the grain of today’s world to make it a better place. “The power of the last century was all built around people saying ‘don’t buy that’. I’m more interested in saying ‘no, buy that’. That’s the power of this century. How do you open the masses’ eyes today? Not with anger and boycott. No, ‘be happy and buy!’ That’s how you change the world. What we need is a capitalist Ghandi. Someone who will raise the bar.”
Although he’d be far too modest to apply that description to himself, Robert has already proved he has the capitalist part of the equation sorted. And a few months after I met him, Robert was in the newspapers for going on hunger strike to shame the DC government into stumping up for some of the meals his Kitchen delivers to their shelters. Ghandi would have approved.