On a rainy afternoon at the Base I interviewed a guy called Oliver Sears: born in Leeds 20 years ago, he decided to study at the Open University in order to independently manage his learning; nothing striking so far, but what we will discover is that this young student and entrepreneur has created something amazing in Leeds and beyond.
Oliver is trying to feed the poor and the homeless in Leeds through re-distribution of food waste, a project he calls ‘Leftovers’. I asked him to tell a bit more about what exactly is he’s doing and how does it work…
What is Leftovers?
Leftovers is a small charity in Leeds, fighting food waste essentially... We reduce, re-use and recycle food waste in an entrepreneurial way.
What's the story behind it? Why did you decide to set it up?
I think it must have been November last year, I became a lot more conscious of the waste I was seeing in stores, particularly when, one day, I was in the Waitrose in Leeds City Centre around about 7.30 pm, before the close, and the staff were going round reducing the food… you wouldn't believe the amount that was left, and all that food by 8 pm would be in the bin. I had asked them before what was going to happen to all the food that didn’t get sold and they answered that it would go straight in the bin, and then it was quite a stark shock and I started thinking, how do you make it so that you can get hold of that food? I mean, the supermarkets are going to throw it away but it's still good, particularly for home cooking or if you freeze it... And so I started thinking how you could address that problem, but it wasn't until the end of January that I was actually able to set up Leftovers.
What did you do first to set up the project?
In setting it up I wanted a bit of an image and a thematic behind Leftovers, so I figured 'would it rather be just a community project that works in Leeds, the kind of fades in the background of the city or would it look more like a brand to make food waste a more approachable issue to tackle?'. As I went for the second option, I started to build up a bit of social medias... I wanted it to be something active and engaging. With a system of improved information like that you can really reduce food waste... Then came all the legal stuff behind it, the legal contract that would allow me to approach a business.
Was it difficult to deal with all the legal issues?
Yeah, I had to get myself a catering award so that I felt comfortable enough as a person going in, taking this food waste... I wasn't by any means an expert to handle food safely, so I did a bit of research. Also, you have to have liability for everything that you take and hold responsibility for it, so working with the Council and the FSA was a big booster on that front.
Is there something you do differently from other charities?
The first thing that came to my mind was to keep the whole thing very dynamic, all-encompassing and a little bit more fun than usual charities... And what that means is that at Leftovers we are present on social media, for example who wants to give us food can drop us a tweet, rather than having us say 'unfortunately we are not doing a schedule pick-up in the area'. Basically, I wanted to make it easier and more possible.
But do you ever find any difficulties in retrieving the food?
The first big difficulty was having to build a contract and a liability to allow me to actually put hands on that food as 'Leftovers' and taking the responsibility away from the businesses that were helping us, obviously making sure that I was could use everything safely and legally. Also you need to know what kind of foods you can realistically pick up and recycle. In the practicality, the difficulty is transporting the food from one place to another... you have to find packaging and containers and things like that.
How do you usually transport food?
Transport is mainly done on foot or by bike, and that allows us to keep it sustainable.
So it seems that you are fighting waste in other ways than just picking up food waste..?
Of course...there's many ways in which you can address the issue of waste, not only with food but also environmentally. If you start transporting food waste by car, you'll then actually be creating a lot of unnecessary waste. What I want to do is not only to reduce food waste but also the impact on the environment… You need to be conscious of things like that throughout the whole operation. We also tried to reduce paper waste by taking the business forth in a non-paper policy; this means that I don't print anything, I don't have business cards and I will never have. Keeping Leftovers digital has been extremely helpful so far in reducing my costs. Paper work might be useful for a couple of days, but you cannot make reference to that in a long-term view... If you keep it digital, it's always there for people to make reference and it's very adaptable, it can be changed everyday.
What kind of medias are you using?
Facebook and Twitter in the first place, to make the business more engaging; Instagram, which has a huge impact and a huge reach as well... people can understand what Leftovers is about not only by reading or hearing about it but they can actually see the stuff we're doing and I want to make sure that those pictures are available for the public to see the amount of food that would be in the bin. In addition to that, we also have a network on Tumblr and Wordpress, which will hopefully be developed into a website. There's another decision there, which is to use social media that are free: by using this kind of medias we've avoided the costs of web posting.
Can you describe a typical week at Leftovers?
We simply pick up food waste daily and re-distribute it to charities or to composts and gardens. Every evening at 5 pm the volunteers or myself go to Leeds City Centre to independencies or lunch corporates. We gather all the food at a reasonable time during the evening, always being conscious of the safety and legality of it and we then transport it to St George's crypt, the main location where we send the food. We often take the food to hostels as well. This is a day-to-day activity that has an impact on the whole week actually. In the next month or so we'll be getting into compost as well... coffee grounds are perfect to be used as fertilizer; we are going to create another branch of Leftovers, called 'Leftovers cultivates'. We are already working with Kirkstall gardens as well as Meanwood Valley Urban Farm.
You said 'we'... Who's helping you with Leftovers?
There's a social enterprise running at University of Leeds called 'Enactus' that allowed me to launch Leftovers as a platform through the partnership of various corporates, for example Unilever. With food waste pick-ups, two or three people from their volunteers group used come along with me in the past, but for the majority of times it's just me, also because I have the liability and license to do that.
What has been the most rewarding experience for you during your time at Leftovers?
I remember picking up a huge quantity of tomatoes and cooking tomato soup at St George's crypt one night and serving that to homeless people. I thought about the fact that we were able to nourish many people with food that would have otherwise gone in the bin, and that was a fantastic feeling. Not only you can reduce food, but you can also have impact on those people's lives in such a way.
Who is donating the food to you in Leeds?
The Opposite café in front of the Parkinson Building, the Victoria Quarter, as well as Leeds Trinity Kitchen, not to mention Laynes and Mrs Atha's. They have all been very forward-thinking and helpful with us.
What's your opinion on the ‘Pay As You Feel ’ Café set up by Adam Smith, also in Leeds?
I've had the fantastic opportunity to meet Adam a while ago, through some Leeds Met's students... He has a huge experience as a chef and a width of knowledge that allows him to run such a great operation. What we are looking to do in the future is maybe to replicate that through street-food stores in the City Centre. Our ultimate goal is to be able to take these leftovers and maybe just not only re-distribute them but also re-constitute them, to give them a little bit of afterlife as well.
Hoping that Leftovers fully succeeds in each of its objectives, I wish Oliver all the best for his charity; it’s quite unusual that someone so young decides to set up his own business not to make money but just for the sake of redistributing the food in a fairer and equal way.
However, as Oliver said, such a project wouldn’t be possible without some external contribution, and there's a comforting reassuarnce knowing that there’s so many people willing to give a hand, not only in Leeds but also throughout England.
And you? Nobody will ask you to devote your evenings to the feeding of the poor, but keeping an eye on your personal food waste could help more than you think.