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April 12, 2011

Robin Aitken, Oxford Food Bank, 12th April 2011

The Oxford Food Bank was set up in 2009. It collects waste food from supermarkets and wholesalers, food that would otherwise be sent to landfill, and delivers it on a daily basis to charitable groups around the city who provide meals for those in need.

A committee was set up approximately ten years ago to discuss the issues of food waste in Oxford. Robin joined the group in 2008. He had previously been a journalist for the BBC and heard about the Food Bank through Reach, an organisation that places ‘post professionals’ (Robin’s term) with charitable groups needing help.
The Food Bank joined forces with the Community Caterers Network – a group of homeless shelters, supporters of asylum seekers and others. This meant that the Food Bank’s ‘customer base’ was established. Robin contacted Sainsburys in 2009 and the Manager of the Kidlington store agreed to help the group. Food Bank volunteers initially collected the food from the store in their own cars and delivered it to Oxford groups including Gatehouse and Donnington Doorstep. They then started to use a van that they hired. In late 2010 they bought their own van.
In 2010 Oxford Food Bank was contacted by Fresh Direct, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler in Bicester. Their waste is just 0.35% but this equates to an average of 2 pallet loads of food for each of the collections, 5 days a week by the Food Bank volunteers.
The Food Bank has operated 7 days a week right from the start. It now serves 20 charities, delivering to some on a daily basis, others weekly. It is also helped by student volunteers co-ordinated by Oxford Hub, an Oxford University organisation for student volunteers. It is taking on new charities on a regular basis and it is now looking to buy a second van to enable continued growth.
The Food Bank deliveries equate to approximately 3,000 meals each week. Robin explained how the food budgets for these types of charities are often squeezed and that the food delivered by the Food Bank, which will include lots of fruit and vegetables, really makes a big difference to the meals provided. The Food Bank is able to offer more interesting food: customers at the Mind centres are involved in making their lunches, so this has encouraged people to become more interested in food.
The food industry as a whole gets a lot of criticism for its waste. The government estimate is that food waste costs us £10 billion /year in the UK, however much of this is actually in our own kitchens. The approach taken by the Oxford Food Bank is that it needs to be as simple as possible for the organisations giving them the food. The Food Bank is a small enough organisation to be flexible to fit around the supermarkets’ and wholesalers’ systems and procedures. It also works with the stores at an individual level rather than with the chain at a national level. There are very few organisations that operate with a similar business model and that collect the food from the source: Germany has more developed systems and supplies food directly to families in food poverty and in the UK there are some church groups that provide dried foods directly to families . The Food Bank website has links to other groups working in this field.
The Oxford Food Bank has been operating for less than two years and it has clearly become a huge success. Its running costs are low – mainly fuel, insurance, depot costs and running the vehicle. The plan is to buy a second van and a cool room for the depot, to enable continued growth.
After Robin spoke to the Spires club, our Club President, Michael Saunders, presented a cheque as a contribution towards a second van. This was the biggest single donation from Oxford Spires club since it was established in 2003 and many club members were keen to visit the Food Bank to better understand its operation.

Oxford Food Bank also received doantions from Abingdon Vesper and Oxford ISIS Rotary Clubs. These three donations enabled the Food Bank to buy a second van in July 2011 to increase their capacity for collecting and delivering food.

Read more about the Oxford Food Bank