Express & Star

An uplifting evening helping Walsall FoodCycle's volunteers turn unwanted food into friendship

When I attended a FoodCycle community meal in Walsall I was supposed to be helping the dedicated volunteers do their incredible work.

Volunteers serve food to guests at FoodCycle Walsall. Photo: Gurdip Thandi

But the reality is I spent a lot of my time at Green Lane Baptist Church, where the Walsall project is run, watching in awe as they cooked and served up tasty, healthy, hot food to grateful guests.

National charity FoodCycle’s vision is to tackle food poverty, loneliness and food waste and the team in Walsall certainly helps to achieve these aims with their weekly Wednesday events.

I was greeted by West Midlands regional manager Pablo Allan who talked me through what would happen during the evening.

Volunteers had already been out to Aldi supermarkets to collect unwanted food – which, because it was at or past its ‘best before’ date and therefore cannot legally be sold, would otherwise have been thrown away.

Judging by the gorgeous aroma coming from the kitchen, the volunteer cooks had already assessed the ingredients at their disposal and started creating the three-course meals which would be served up.

A bit later, the ‘host’ volunteers arrived who quickly got to work in setting the tables and getting things ready ahead of serving the meals.

FoodCycle Walsall's dining room ready for guests. Photo: Gurdip Thandi

Any food not used would be shared amongst the guests at the end of the night.

Mr Allan said they typically got between 15 to 20 people during the winter months in Walsall.

With average attendances at the other nine projects across Birmingham and the Black Country even higher, FoodCycle is feeding hundreds of people across the West Midlands each week.

And demand is growing nationally, with plans to increase the number of FoodCycle projects from the current 83 to 100 by the end of the year.

Mr Allan said they attracted guests from a range of age groups and different walks of life including those who were in need and people who wanted company.

And this became evident as they arrived and took their places and started talking to their friends over a cup of tea or coffee.

Guests came for a variety of reasons whether they were struggling with bills, were lonely or had appliances such as fridges and ovens break down.

One regular told me that his weekly Wednesday visit to FoodCycle Walsall was often the only chance he had to go somewhere to meet others.

But they didn’t dwell on any negatives and instead made the most of the evening, filling the air with warm chat, laughter and then the happy sound of cutlery on crockery when the meals were served.

The menu on the night literally sounded mad – Potty Bean Soup (potato and green bean soup with garlic croutons) for starters, Insane Stew (mixed veg) for mains and a dessert of Go Bananas Cake (banana bread and custard).

And, judging by the speed at which the food was being eaten, the guests were clearly mad for it too! They weren’t wolfing it down because they were in a hurry, they just clearly loved it.

Volunteers are able to enjoy the food themselves if it is going spare and they’d go out and sit with the other guests and chat, adding to the overwhelming warm community feel of the event.

They have hectic lives with work, study and family life but are committed to FoodCycle and take great pride in ensuring a good service for the guests.

FoodCycle Walsall cooks preparing meals for guests. Photo: Gurdip Thandi

Cook Marie Hedmin, a full time carer during the day, volunteers in a number of different areas.

She said: “Volunteering is something for me while giving to the community at the same time.

“I enjoy helping and supporting people. It’s mixing and making friends instead of being just a carer. Seeing them satisfied at the end is really good as well.”

She inspired her daughter Katriona, at 19 the youngest volunteer on the night, to join the FoodCycle too.

Katriona, a full-time student, said: “It enables me to help the community and have something to do. I enjoy it.

“I would encourage young people to come and get involved as it is good experience.”

Project leader Tracey Hegenbarth, who runs the Lola’s Loft craft shop in Halesowen, has been volunteering there for two years.

She said: “It is rewarding and it’s a nice thing to do. The people that come really appreciate it and we get a lot of repeat guests and you get to know them.

“And it is nice to give something back. People are lonely. People don’t just come because they can’t afford to eat.

“They come from all walks of life and it’s nice that anyone can come. There is no stigma for people who are in need. There are no strings here - you come, you eat, you go home. You can talk to somebody or sit on your own.”

Councillor Tina Jukes, who serves Birchills-Leamore, the ward in which the project is based, said: “Food poverty can have an impact on many people.

“Projects like FoodCycle Walsall in the local community play a vital role and it is appreciated by local residents.

“I commend and thank the work that they do for people that need help in such challenging times in their life.”

As for me, I did try to help and managed to chop some celery, help lay tables, take out food and do a bit of cleaning up - but probably spent more time chatting and eating!

But it was enough of a flavour to see how rewarding it is to be part of such a warm community event.

People can support and sign up to volunteer at FoodCycle at