It’s a cold morning and steam billows from a vent in the loading bay at the back of Midleton’s Aldi supermarket.
I’m spending a few hours with FoodCloud volunteer Deirdre McGranaghan as she collects surplus food from Aldi stores and delivers it to a Cork charity.
We separate food into containers, one for bread, one for fresh meat, one for salads and so on. This run takes two to three hours and is done morning and evening, five days a week, from different supermarkets to different charities, by volunteers in customised vans, nine of which were supplied by Opel.
FoodCloud was founded in 2012 by Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien when they met while studying in Trinity College Dublin.
“Within one community, there can be a business that’s throwing away perfectly good food and just around the corner there’s a charity that’s struggling to feed people in need,” says Ward. “We wanted to connect the two.”
Irish households spend roughly €700 million a year on food that ends up being thrown out. About a million tonnes of food is dumped here each year, even as many people struggle to put food on the table.
Last year, France became the first country to pass a law to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying food, a move which prompted suggestions a similar law should be considered here.
FoodCloud says it offers an innovative solution, rescuing surplus food suitable for human consumption and distributing it to charities.
This morning on the Cork FoodCloud run, Deirdre is the driver and I’m the navigator. In that role, I fall at the first hurdle by somehow managing to get lost on Little Island and showing up 20 minutes late. Deirdre is very understanding. Deirdre’s day-job is with the Brothers of Charity Child and Family Clinic in Mayfield.
Each Aldi loading bay has its own micro-climate today. Carrigtwohill is a freezing wind tunnel and we are very glad to be let inside the door for shelter.
Glanmire is positively summery. Mayfield is chilly. The loading bay for the Elysian Aldi is in the underground car-park and sheltered. There Aldi’s manager Karl Browning gives us a hand with the surplus food.
“This is a fantastic service,” Karl says, hefting a tray of bread rolls, “and Aldi is delighted to help out. To be honest, it’s Deirdre and the other volunteers do all the hard work.”
Just short of three hours after we set out, we arrive at the Cork Life Centre, which is situated on Winter’s Hill, in Sundays Well, in the old Christian Brothers’ Edmund Rice House. There Deirdre and I unload our boxes and trays and are greeted by Don O’Leary, Cork Life Centre’s administrator.
The Cork Life Centre is a voluntary organisation which offers one-to-one tutoring for children who have fallen between the cracks of our education system and who have become marginalised.
Last year, they had ten kids complete the Leaving Cert and 9 the Junior Cert. This year, they have 13 kids in the Leaving and 13 in Junior Cert. Their director, Don O’Leary, says that for them, “academia is the smallest part of what we do. Self-esteem is everything.”
They run the place on a shoestring and supply breakfast and lunch to kids who might otherwise go hungry.
Showing us around, O’Leary tells us that this house was originally the home of the Lord Mayor of Cork and - from the window of what was once the ballroom - he shows us the view down to the building that was Cork’s Mansion House from 1767 to 1842, these days the Mercy Hospital.
The Mayor’s ballroom is now a warm, steamy kitchen and here, every day, over a hundred meals are prepared.
Today’s menu includes mushroom soup and pasta with a choice of sauces. Everything is cooked fresh and it smells delicious. Volunteers bustle around as they put the finishing touches to today’s lunch. O’Leary says nobody leaves here hungry.
FoodCloud has been a blessing to the Cork Life Centre, freeing up desperately-needed funding they would otherwise have to spend on food.
Odile Le Bolloch of the Environmental Protection Agency is impressed with FoodCloud’s work but sounds a note of caution, especially on the idea of legislation forcing companies to donate surplus food to charity.
“Over a million tonnes of food waste is generated in Ireland every year and donating surplus food alone will not solve the problem,” she says. “We need to do more to reduce wasted food all along the supply chain; we need to work together. Everyone has a part to play; producers, growers, retail, hospitality and consumers.
“While creating legislation to force companies to donate surplus food might seem like the right thing to do, it is important that charities do not become a dumping ground for overproduction in the food supply chain.
Tackling the issue must start with preventing food waste at source and (encouraging businesses toward) becoming more efficient in using what we have, followed by rescuing surplus food that cannot be prevented.”
Since FoodCloud began operations in its hubs in Galway, Dublin and Cork, it has redistributed 1,150 tonnes of food.
That’s the equivalent of an astionishing 2.5 million meals.
Le Bolloch says that dealing with donated food has its own challenges for charities, saying: “It would be important (for charities) to build capacity and provide support in the form of developing skills, and providing infrastructure to handle, cook and store this food.”
This rings true for the Cork Life Centre, where Don O’Leary confides that the centre now feeds far more than just kids taking another crack at the education system, and also looks after a broader community which might otherwise go hungry.
“We don’t do ‘charity’,” he says. “We just ask people to do us a favour and take some surplus food off our hands.”