I’m Laura Winningham from City Harvest and this is #MYCHARITY

This week on the #MYCHARITY series, we speak to Laura Winningham, CEO of City Harvest a charity organisation that puts surplus food to good use in a sustainable way.

Laura Winningham from City Harvest
Laura Winningham from City Harvest

Location: London

Current job: CEO, City Harvest

One word that best describes how you work: Meticulous

Your biggest success: 10 million meals delivered in London, 15,000 tons of greenhouse gases prevented by redistributing surplus food to those in need.       

Your greatest fear: Earthquakes—I’ve been in a few.

Your biggest dream: My children thrive and achieve all they set out to do

Your favourite movie: Fargo

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.

I’m originally from New York, where I worked in the world of finance, investing in media and telecom stocks at a private investment partnership.  I have an MBA from Stanford with a focus on entrepreneurship and had a taste for investing with a purpose, having spent time as an analyst at a socially responsible venture capital fund whilst I was a student. After taking time out of the corporate world to raise twins I decided to move in a different direction.  I was aware that in New York and other major cities around the world, there were organisations rescuing fresh surplus food from local businesses that would otherwise go to waste and delivering it to people who needed it most.  I believed that there was a large need in London for this type of organisation.  We estimate that each month in London food for 13.3 million meals is wasted whilst at the same time 9.2 million meals are missed by people living in food poverty. 

Some friends were collecting food from Whole Foods Kensington to help a local church in West London and we decided to test the market, connecting more food businesses and additional charities. We launched City Harvest with an old borrowed refrigerated van and a few early food partners in addition to Whole Foods such as Morrisons, M&S and Charlie Bigham’s.  The rest is history.  We now redistribute more than 100,000 nourishing meals each week to 300 charities in every London borough.

Take us through a recent workday at City Harvest

City Harvest have doubled in size almost overnight to meet the spiralling levels of hunger that are resulting from the Coronavirus crisis.   We’ve delivered almost 1 million meals in the first 6 weeks of the lockdown.  We’ve done this with many of our usual team self-isolating and a skeletal team in the office, operating with social distancing.  So a recent workday has left very little time for sleep. Our partners, many of whom served community meals to large groups of people have changed format and City Harvest has had to adapt to meet their new need to provide food that is best suited for food parcels and home deliveries. At the same time, the food supply chain is in disarray and we’re adapting to changes on that side of our organisation as well. With a need for more food, we need to educate more food businesses about the importance of donating any surplus food.  We’ve needed to train new drivers and get temporary additional warehouse space to stock the growing inventory. 

The entire City Harvest team has been extraordinary and heroic.  I’m so proud of what they’ve achieved.  As one of the founding members of the London Food Alliance, we are working with the Mayor’s office and local boroughs to ensure that all individuals have access to the food that they need during this emergency.

How do you discover new ways to innovate in your working day? 

At City Harvest, we’re always reflecting and evaluating the work we do with the ultimate goal of delivering more nourishing meals to more people.  We are very data-driven and use our real-time information to evaluate the efficiency of our fleet of food rescue vans, the nutritional content of the food we rescue, and many other metrics to ensure we are efficiently using donor funds to better nourish the community.  We have an Impact team that is focused on more qualitative issues.  They are speaking with our charity partners, getting a feel for the need in the community and clarity on whether City Harvest is effectively meeting the need of the thousands of men, women and children who have issues accessing food. We always seek feedback from our partners and are eager to hear the stories of the people that are nourished with food from City Harvest.   We’re always analysing results so we can improve our outcomes.

What is the next big thing in the charity sector?

The immediate focus for most charities will be to find the support needed to survive in a very challenging social and economic climate resulting from the COVID Crisis.  One key will be collaboration- during this crisis, more than ever, I’ve witnessed charities sharing information, ideas, and technology.  The ability to rapidly form partnerships has been important in what is essentially a humanitarian food aid crisis in our own backyard.  There’s a sense that we’ve gone from nourishing our neighbours to working in life and death situations.   Volunteers delivering meals are often the ones to call ambulances to help vulnerable, self -isolating people who have been neglected and malnourished.

How do you choose business partners to support the charity?

Our sustainability goals are aligned with many of the corporate partners with which we work. Our food redistribution work, nourishing people with food that would otherwise go to waste, meets 9 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals such as No Poverty, Zero Hunger and Sustainable Cities.

Many companies want to make a very hyperlocal impact, directly in and around the locations where their employees live and work.  City Harvest operates in all London boroughs and we can give each corporate partner a very clear impact report on how we help vulnerable people in their areas.  Some companies wish to benefit a specific group such as children, refugees, families, women facing domestic violence, the homeless.  City Harvest delivers food to programs that serve almost every vulnerable group.

Companies can send volunteers to help us sort food and deliver to different projects and see the direct impact that they are making.  This is a very inspiring experience.  We have fantastic partnerships with food businesses, which are at the very foundation of what we do and with others who offer financial support and volunteering to keep our vans on the road delivering food. Companies such as William Blair, Artemis Funds, T Rowe Price and foundations such as Citybridge Trust, Portman Foundation, and the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers and the Grocers have been invaluable to our work.  We also benefit from skills-based volunteering, having individuals who are some of the best and brightest in their fields offering us professional services.  All of these partners share our interest and passion-getting great quality, nutritious food to London’s most vulnerable.

Tell us about your favourite case history of the most successful partnership. 

It’s so hard to choose – City Harvest has more than 300 community partners who receive our free food surplus food deliveries each week.  These community meal programs, children’s’ programs, family centres, and elderly drop-in sessions are each doing heroic things that transform lives for the better. Food is a tool they all use to embrace people, bring them in, offer them friendship and other services.  We have several partners who we work with on multiple programs like the Mayor’s Fund  Kitchen Social, which ensures children have activities and nourishment during holiday periods—times when unfortunately many children in London face adversity. Foodcycle has many hubs around London, and City Harvest delivers food to several of these.  I have a special place in my heart for Choir with no Name which brings vulnerable, homeless people together for a weekly choir rehearsal and during the holidays does wonderful performances throughout London.  City Harvest delivers the ingredients that enable more than 80 people to have a wonderful vegetarian meal weekly after theses rehearsals. 

Our partnerships with restaurants, supermarkets, manufacturers, events companies and others make what we do possible.  We look forward to annual events in London which choose to give us really special surplus food donations—Wimbledon, RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and the International Food & Drink Event.  And we value our partnerships with New Covent Garden market and New Spitalfields Market since we focus on fresh nutritious food—35% of the food we deliver is fresh fruit and vegetables.   Supermarkets like Whole Foods and Morrisons have been great supporters and manufacturers of nutritious meals like Charlie Bigham’s have been so important to nourish the community.

How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?

Leading a food redistribution charity during an emergency food aid crisis leaves little time to switch off.  It definitely involves lots of sacrifice on the part of our entire team! I’m sure this is true across all charities. What drives this hard work is a sense of pride in what we all accomplish each day. I read several books each week and because gyms are currently shuttered due to coronavirus risks, I am benefiting from fantastic streaming Pilates classes from my favourite studio (heartcore.co.uk) which I squeeze into my schedule. I have zoom calls with old friends based all over the world and most importantly, find time to laugh—having identified several streaming shows to watch with my husband and twins that offer a complete distraction from the challenging issues in the world today.

What are you currently reading, or what’s something you’d recommend?

I usually read an eclectic combination of books at any one time, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and have a monthly book group (now on zoom!).    I’ve recently read The Feather Thief, The Salt Path, The Dutch House and I’m about to start The Mirror & the Light

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _____ answer these same questions.

I’ve met so many inspiring people in this sector recently, of whom I’d love to ask all these questions! Since City Harvest delivers food to more than 300 community organisations, I’m continually impressed by the individuals I see working so hard to make such a great impact. Louisa Mitchell, West London Zone, Louise Holstein, Mike’s TableMary McGrath, Foodcycle, Dee Woods at Granville Community Centre and Dan Atkins, Buses4 Homeless are just a few of the people who I find very impressive.  We also collect food from hundreds of companies and I meet so many people who are doing impressive things and supporting City Harvest in the process.  Emilie Vanpoperinghe, founder of Oddbox and Ali Warburton founder of POW foods are two who come to mind.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’m a keen believer in paying it forward. City Harvest has been successful because of the tremendous support of so many different partners and stakeholders and we try and take a very collaborative approach, passing on the goodwill we’ve been so fortunate to receive to others.  Over the years, we’ve been given a tremendous amount of advice from the CEO, Lori Nikkel, of Second Harvest in Toronto.  She responds to every query with incredible speed and with thoughtful responses.   So we are thrilled when people ask City Harvest for guidance on how to start a food rescue organisation and we can pay it forward. We often get calls from other cities and countries and we’re thrilled to share our knowledge and learnings.

You can follow City Harvest on Instagram @cityharvestlondon

The WeGiveIt #MYCHARITY series asks heroes, experts, and leaders to share their ambitions, routines and more and it’s published on WeGiveI Blog.

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