Hungry for change... behind the scenes at Cork’s FoodCloud Hub

FoodCloud redirected 1,235 tonnes of produce destined for the trash to people in need in 2017, writes ELLIE O’BYRNE
Hungry for change... behind the scenes at Cork’s FoodCloud Hub
Sorting food were Dominic Grogan, John Highet, Ian Cullinane, Leonard Murphy, Kevin Keeshan the warehouse manager and Sean O’Breasail at the Food Cloud Hub, Little Island, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

SIX tonnes of butter looks like a lot, especially when you realise it was destined for the garbage.

Standing in FoodCloud’s Cork Hub, in the vast walk-in freezer room, teeth already beginning to chatter in the arctic air, are Kevin Keeshan, the Little Island facility’s warehouse manager; John Highet, warehouse operative; and Eoin McGuirk, who has worked on FoodCloud and related projects since 2008 and who is now on the FoodCloud Board of Directors.

Kevin explains how the butter mountain we are looking at, all carefully packaged in high-quality plastic tubs and seemingly perfect, ended up being donated to FoodCloud.

“It was blast-frozen for the American market and they didn’t want it; there’s six tonnes here, but we were actually donated 12 tonnes to begin with.”

FoodCloud operates on a simple premise: there’s food going to waste, and there are people who need it. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a shocking million tonnes of food gets wasted in Ireland each year, with producers the largest offenders, wasting 450,000 tonnes, while retailers and homes dump the rest. And even as all this perfectly good food gets turned into landfill, one in eight Irish people faces food poverty.

Kevin Keeshan the warehouse manager at the Food Cloud Hub, Little Island, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Kevin Keeshan the warehouse manager at the Food Cloud Hub, Little Island, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

FoodCloud matches retailers and producers, who find themselves with top-quality but somehow surplus produce, to a list of charities whose chefs can use the free ingredients to whip up tasty meals for their service users.

It’s a hi-tech initiative, which uses an app to create matchings and reduce food miles where possible too, and as a social enterprise, it’s made a lot of waves since it launched in 2013. It’s been featured on Time magazine and Guardian lists of social innovators, and picked up a string of awards, most recently at an EU competition for green start-ups.

Cork’s warehouse, 10,000 sq feet in size, in Little Island, is one of three Irish hubs. The others are in Dublin and Galway. They are state-of-the-art facilities, with a heavy emphasis on HACCP food safety systems. They are spotless and manned by trained staff and volunteers.

John Highet, originally from Canada, has been working on the warehouse floor for the past year and says he’s “never seen such a clean operation”. Although he has many years of warehouse experience, he says, it’s a shock to see the volumes of surplus food moved through the facility.

“No-one realises how much has been wasted until you’re actually standing in it,” he says. “The butter alone; it’s like, wow!”

We move to the cold room, where two pallet-loads of Irish yoghurts rub shoulders with crates of quiches, top Irish farmhouse cheeses, and ready-meals from a well-known Irish company. A common misconception about food banks in general, and the work that FoodCloud does, Eoin McGuirk says, is that they handle out-of-date food.

“Everything here is perfect, but surplus,” Eoin says.

There are many reasons that food could end up in the FoodCloud hub, and some of them are quality-control related production issues — once, they received a donation of 11 tonnes of chocolate chip ice-cream, where a machine error in the manufacturing meant that the chocolate chips were unevenly distributed throughout the ice-cream.

Leonard Murphy and Ian Cullinane at the Food Cloud Hub, Little Island, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Leonard Murphy and Ian Cullinane at the Food Cloud Hub, Little Island, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

“Or we got eight tonnes of breaded chicken where the chicken got breaded on the top and on the bottom, but not on the sides,” says Eoin. “It was a quality product for hotels and they couldn’t use it, but it’s perfectly good chicken and it’s all in date. That’s 60,000 portions of chicken.”

It’s for these large donations that the food hubs are used; on a day-to-day basis, the FoodCloud app tries to match smaller donations directly to charities in their area. At the end of the day, a food retailer will upload details of their surplus stock to the system, and then chefs from the charities will log in and arrange collection.

“The local shop and the local charity work together and we’re the glue that binds them together,” Eoin says. “We have a whole tracking system and a dashboard.

“At half seven tonight, more than 3,000 Tesco stores will put their stuff up on the cloud. In 2,900 cases, everything works perfectly, but the call centre in Dublin helps to maximise the collection of the food with minimal hassle to the shops and charities.”

Eoin had been one of the founding forces behind FoodCloud’s predecessor, Bia Food Initiative, and it was as Bia Food Initiative that a team of Cork volunteers, aided by donations including €50,000 from Limerick philanthropist JP McManus, built the Cork depot before Bia joined forces with FoodCloud.

“Builders in Cork built this hub for us; all the blocks were laid by volunteers,” Eoin says. “This was built by the people of Cork.”

Despite having ensured that more than 8,500 tonnes of food have reached people in need through charities, Eoin says that FoodCloud are hungry for more.

“It’s a drop in the ocean, when you think about it,” he says, on his way to examine some pallet-loads of shelf-stable foods, donated by supermarkets.

“And our goal is not only to move the food, but to educate that the processes that cause the waste could be changed too.

“We’re in a position to be able to say, ‘we’re getting bakery goods from you every day, maybe you have too much bakery and need to adjust your ordering’.”

Sorting food were John Highet and Ian Cullinane, at the Food Cloud Hub, Little Island, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Sorting food were John Highet and Ian Cullinane, at the Food Cloud Hub, Little Island, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

Having worked with the Cork Simon Community for years, Eoin is passionate about the issue of food inequity.

“There’s a really important point: we shouldn’t have to be in business,” he says. “You shouldn’t have to come to a food bank to be fed. Everybody has a moral right to eat and people should have enough to be able to feed themselves. But if there is surplus, we don’t want it thrown out.”

The Cork FoodCloud Hub is manned by one part-time and three full-time staff members; the rest of the operation is kept running smoothly through the goodwill and hard work of volunteers.

“Volunteers also have to be Garda vetted: there’s a lot of governance around what is essentially a really really nice thing to do,” Eoin says.

“Everyone is HACCP-trained too. Things like that give the comfort that we can physically and legally do it. We worked with lawyers to help us work out the liability when food gets passed on — the liability moves with the food, and everyone signs off on that.”

Irish people, Eoin says, “didn’t even understand the concept of a food bank,” when he started working on the Bia Food Initiative in 2008, and a lot of the battle has been in creating a shift in attitudes; Ireland is currently the eighth worst European country for wasting food, and has plenty catching up to do.

“The first food bank in Europe was in 1984; it was 30 years later before we were creating that infrastructure ourselves, so we started way behind everybody else.”

Now, with large retailers in Ireland and the UK like Tesco, Waitrose, Aldi and Lidl eager to increase their social capital and cut costs (each tonne of food costs an estimated €150 to directly dispose of, but may have cost the retailer as much as €2,000 to buy and store), they are eager to weigh in with FoodCloud.

But it’s important not to lose sight of the end goal: the people who need to be fed.

“We want these places empty; the object is not to have full shelves here,” Eoin says.

“The more quality products we can get out to those organisations, the more they can change their budgets to do more and provide other services; if you can half their food budget for them, they can do other things with that money.”

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