Page last updated at 02:19 GMT, Thursday, 18 September 2008 03:19 UK

How waste food can be a lifeline

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

A man enjoys a healthy meal
Nutritious meals can help keep homeless people healthy
A food distribution charity is calling on the industry to make better use of millions of pounds' worth of food earmarked as waste.

It argues that excess or nearly out-of-date produce that might be regarded as rubbish to supermarkets or food producers can be a lifeline to others.

Those in the front-line battle against hunger can testify to that.

When former RAF technician Steve ended up on the streets, it was a shock to the system.

"It was lonely and cold and when it first happened, I didn't know what to do," said the 48-year-old.

"I was panicking. I had no money, nothing to do, just nothing."

Having spent 12 years as a radar technician with the RAF, Steve - who chose not to give his real name - might not be the sort of person you would expect to see sleeping on the steps of a theatre.

Originally from Newport, South Wales, he had left the forces in 1990 to take up a job as a porter at London's Royal Marsden Hospital as he adjusted to civilian life.

A decade later, things had taken a turn for the worse.

I'd wait outside shops for handouts or go round the back of Sainsbury's to find the out-of-date stock
Steve, former homeless man

By now working as a barman, he had little money and when his landlord sold off his flat, he found he could not afford the capital's inflated rents.

"I went rapidly downhill," he said.

"I ended up 'sofa-surfing' in friends' front rooms but once the favours had run out, I had no choice but to sleep rough.

"I had no drink, drugs or mental health problems. There's support groups for those things but because there was nothing wrong with me, I had little help.

"I was eating cheap crisps, I'd wait outside shops for handouts or go round the back of Sainsbury's to find the out-of-date stock."

It was when an old friend spotted him and took him to FareShare, where he had been volunteering, that things began to change.

As well as getting good food, Steve began helping the delivery drivers and was able to shower and eat at the warehouse before setting out to work.

He took on more responsibility by training other volunteers and was later accepted onto the charity's training scheme, which paid for him to earn food hygiene and forklift driving qualifications.

Regular work

The experience he gained working in FareShare's London warehouse proved crucial in helping him find work as a painter and decorator.

Steve now has regular work and a permanent home with his girlfriend in Ealing, west London, but he remembers the importance of a proper meal to those on the streets.

"When you're living rough, you have coughs and colds a lot because your immune system is down and that good food can make a big difference," he said.

"You need proper food just to keep going."

Tim Renshaw is no stranger to people with stories like Steve's.

He is director of Sheffield Cathedral's Archer Project, which provides hot breakfast or lunch to more than 100 homeless people every day.

Since he began paying FareShare 30 per week for supplies, Mr Renshaw said his outlay on food has been slashed by a third.

Either surplus food is put to good use like this or goes to landfill... it's a bit of a no-brainer
John Willetts, FareShare Leicester

"We receive anything from frozen lasagnes, pizzas and pitta bread to meat pies, fresh orange juice and cheese," he said.

"To buy meat alone to make pies for everyone would cost 50 per week, so that's a 20 saving straight away.

"We can spend the extra money on providing showers, a nurse or skilled workers who have the knowledge and experience to help homeless people move on in their lives."

Mr Renshaw said that for many people, it involved keeping them away from drugs.

"It's a harsh fact that drugs take precedence over food and that becomes a huge problem for the NHS," he said.

"We have some people who will go into bins behind shops for food. FareShare helps us provide a new diet for those people who would struggle to get a nutritious meal otherwise."

John Willetts, project director of FareShare Leicester, agrees.

Backed by the Church of England, the Leicester operation was set up after a successful trial in July this year. It already makes a weekly delivery to 20 groups who feed 2,000 people.

In addition, it has come to an arrangement allowing groups to collect fresh produce from local supermarkets on a daily basis.

"When you have the choice that either surplus food is put to good use like this or goes to landfill, then it's a bit of a no-brainer really," said Mr Willetts.

"It's just about putting the mechanisms in place to make it happen."

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