Laura Winningham, CEO of City Harvest London

How We Stop Wasting Food

July 24, 2020 | 33:01
Getting surplus food into the mouths of the hungry is more complicated than it seems. Join our moderator, Hugo, and portfolio manager, Simon, for a conversation with Laura Winningham, CEO of City Harvest London, which has rescued 4,000 tons of surplus food and delivered 10 million meals to those in need.

Meet Our Moderator

Hugo Scott-Gall, Partner

01:36 Hugo asks Laura why she started City Harvest.
04:43 Laura explains how she got companies involved in her mission.
11:34 Hugo asks Laura how demand finds her and how people lacking food can get to her.
14:43 Laura explains how her organization is able to deliver food for over 90,000 meals a week.
21:25 City Harvest London needs to grow, Laura shares the fundraising goals.
26:09 Hugo and Simon ask Laura how best to educate people about hunger.


Hugo Scott-Gall: Today, I have with me Laura Winningham, CEO of City Harvest London. City Harvest London is London’s first large-scale, last-mile food redistribution effort that connects surplus food with those facing hunger. City Harvest has made a large impact in a short amount of time, including delivering 10 million meals to people facing hunger, rescuing 4,000 tons of surplus foods, connecting with and delivering to 300 organizations, and offsetting more than 15,000 tons of greenhouse gases. Before founding City Harvest in London, Laura worked in finance; she has an MBS from Stanford. Laura, thanks so much for joining us today.

Laura Winningham: Thanks so much for having me.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Also with me, is my colleague Simon Fennell. Simon, thank you for joining us, as well.

Simon Fennell: Of course.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, let’s get cracking, let’s start with a bit more about City Harvest. Laura, why did you start City Harvest in London?

Laura Winningham: So, I was aware that in other major cities around the world, there were food rescue efforts, that’s rescuing food from any type of business—supermarket, restaurant, retailers, manufacturers. And in cities like New York, Toronto, Sydney, and many other cities, there were organizations doing this. When I arrived in London 12 years ago, there really was no one doing this, so it was just a thought back then. But we started slowly; it was really just a project that because the need was so great, it really scaled quite quickly, and turned into what it is today. Also, when I was in New York—I’m from New York originally—and I was well-aware of the impact that City Harvest in New York made; we’re not formally affiliated with them, but I was really aware that they were an important part of the fabric of New York City.

Hugo Scott-Gall: And how did you get your arms around the program? How did you sort of discover the data to see how much of the food was being wasted, and then, what was the shortfall in terms of demand for food, how many people were going hungry?

Laura Winningham: So, it’s a really interesting question. The UK, unlike other first-world countries, did not keep track of food poverty statistics, so we had information on poverty, and from that, you can infer that there would be people going hungry as well, but we didn’t have the data. So, we started small, we started in Acton, West London, and we were collecting from Whole Foods Kensington, and delivering it to one church in West London. But then, just really from that point, we could see how great the need was. There was more food that Whole Foods could give us, and there were many other community organizations that wanted the food.

So, it grew organically; we were just sort of testing the pieces that there was great food poverty in the city. And a couple of years ago, we started working with Bain & Company; they were doing some pro bono work for us so that we could actually have the numbers surrounding food poverty and food waste. And from that research, we learned that in London, every month, 9.2 million meals are missed by people living in food poverty, and 13.3 million meals are wasted by businesses. So, there’s more than enough food being wasted to feed people every meal that they’re missing because of food poverty.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, yeah, I guess, from an economist’s point of view, this is a market failure: you’ve got a perishable supply that’s being destroyed, and you’ve got demand that isn’t being met. And you arrive and think, “I’m gonna put myself in the middle of this,” and begin to solve it. So, there’s a sort of — a discovery challenge, which is how do you discover where is the food waste, who is wasting it, and what can you do about that? And then, the other side you kinda know that there are plenty of people who are going hungry, but again, how do you find both sides?

So, let’s maybe start with the food wastage; how did you identify who were the big wasters, and how do you get them on board to help?

Laura Winningham: Yeah, I mean, there was some government data — limited data on food waste. But it just involved networking; it was really speaking to companies one-by-one trying to get into the supermarket chains. At the point when we were starting it, the media was just starting to look at food waste, taking it seriously, and the supermarkets were being looked at carefully by I think investors and the media. So, they were more interested in speaking to us because there were people that were doing dumpster diving, they were going behind M&S to see just what food was being wasted, and the supermarkets were getting into trouble on social media.

So, they were more receptive to City Harvest coming in and say, “Can we come in and collect surplus food that you’re not using?” And I should specify, we try and change the language of the situation, it’s not food waste because that connotes food that you wouldn’t eat, we only rescue food that we ourselves would eat, or we’d serve our families. It’s surplus food that’s unused for any number of reasons: over-supply, mislabeling, it could be any number of reasons but is perfectly edible food.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, on the food surplus side, it’s not that people don’t want to help, it’s just providing them a solution that is I guess fairly friction-free for them?

Laura Winningham: Exactly. So, take an average supermarket, they’re really busy, they’re understaffed, the people making the decisions are usually at the ground level. I could go in top-down and speak to the CEO, but it’s really the person on the ground by the back door that’s making the decision about whether they chuck the food or put it safely aside for us to collect. And that for us is still the biggest challenge, at least dealing with the supermarkets. As an example, there’s high turnover every month, even if we introduce the concept of donating surplus food to one person, there’s turnover, that person changes, we’re back to square one in a month.

Manufacturers have very efficient assembly lines, there’s surplus food coming out of the assembly lines, but they don’t want to add the extra cost in to really step in and collect the surplus, and just put it aside, or they might not have the storage facilities. So, it’s actually working with each potential donor to understand their needs and how we could come in in a frictionless way, as you said. As an example, Nando’s restaurants, they were throwing out a lot of chicken that wasn’t used when customers didn’t come in, after a certain time period, they were throwing the chicken out for quality control purposes — they felt like after a couple of hours, the moisture was out of the chicken, but it was perfectly edible. They created a system where they took the chicken pieces, put them in freezer bags, put them in a small, dedicated freezer, and City Harvest came in and in a frictionless way, didn’t bother the staff, waved hello, went into the freezer, picked up the chicken pieces and left. And then, in that way, it was as easy for the restaurant to give it to us, as it would’ve been to throw it out. So, that’s sort of the best-case scenario where it’s win-win, they’re happy they’re donating, and there’s no extra costs, no extra work, really.

But for each potential donor, it’s different, and it’s been hard to get food donated. So, whereas being given the statistics that there’s all this food available, getting it is another story; we have to work hard, raise awareness, and that’s been a big part of my job.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Before we go onto the demand side, just on this sort of raising awareness, how often have you tried to partner with a producer of surplus food, and found it just too difficult to make it work? And the awareness side is that because — is it an incentives thing? Is it an awareness of the broader benefits of doing good, or is it just literally down at the individual level that some people view this as just too much hassle, for want of a better word?

Laura Winningham: Yeah, so there’s a lot of hassle — actually, I have to say that rarely once we’ve started working with a partner has it ever ended; I can’t really think of a situation. The hardest part is getting in, but sometimes, in a big company, someone that’s not senior will call us and say, “I am witnessing a lot of waste, it’s just breaking my heart here, can you do something?” We get a lot of those calls, and unfortunately, in a lot of situations, we then try and go into the companies, and the senior management isn’t interested.

So, you have these junior people, you know, it might be an age thing because generationally, younger people are more focused on food waste and the environment. So, it could be that 10 years from now, when the people that are calling me are in more senior positions, things will be different. But once we do get our foot in the door and people realize how easy it is, once you get over that hurdle, rarely does the relationship end.

Hugo Scott-Gall: How much more in terms of — I guess it’s hard to measure this —but in terms of surplus food, how much are you managing to get through your network, and how much do you think is still out there? How much is left to sort of still be captured?

Laura Winningham: Yeah, I think that we’re probably collecting three percent of what’s out there, it’s just a tip of the iceberg what we do. So, if you come to our depot in West London, you’d see huge volumes of food, most people are just so stunned when they see it. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg, and we know about the volumes that are being wasted, and it’s really problematic.

Again, when the media was looking at supermarkets, and they had to take action, but the media isn’t always privy to manufacturers’ assembly lines, and seeing the waste that’s coming out of it. I think investors, as they start to ask more questions, change will be made. But I think those questions aren’t necessarily being asked as much as they should be.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Yeah, is there an ESG reputational angle here that actually, in time, investors, stakeholders in companies may be asking these sorts of questions much more? And as soon as companies are required to report metrics around things, performance always follows. Are you optimistic that that might be something that can cause change?

Laura Winningham: Yeah, I’m confident that it will change. The food is there, and the companies just aren’t being forced to do it at this point. And I understand there’s economics, there would be a cost for them to put aside the food, so I’m not minimizing that. But you know, if there’s edible food, it shouldn’t be wasted when there’s thousands of people going hungry. And when it goes to landfill, it’s so detrimental to the environment.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Exactly, exactly. So, let’s talk a bit about the demand side, and how demand finds you, or how you grow your network so you increase awareness of where you are and how the hungry can find you.

Laura Winningham: So, I think that side of the business benefitted from my background as a financial analyst because I saw a situation where research needed to be done, like how do you find all these people to accept the food? And there was no central repository — there was no list of charities and community organizations in London that were preparing meals for vulnerable people; it’s a giant mix. It could be an old woman in a church basement cooking for 10 people, or it could be an actual soup kitchen cooking for 300 people; no central list, I literally spent a year just researching it, asking people.

And so, I have a Google map now of 1,300 community organizations I could be delivering to; we deliver to 300, and I have a waitlist of probably 200 organizations. I call them charities, but it could be really any community organization that’s doing something good with food, it could be an after-school program for disadvantaged children teaching cookery with the food, it could be — we got a call from a Wandsworth probation officer who said he was doing breakfast clubs for the people he has to monitor each week, and food would make the situation better, so that’s fine. And so, there’s many — the places we deliver to aren’t just simply about feeding people, they’re sort of using the food as a tool to bring people in, often to give them other services.

But no, it just took a lot of research to find them. Now, word-of-mouth is out there, and one charity or community organization will tell another one. Now, the waitlist is — in the last month, I’d say 70 community organizations were added to our waitlist because the need is spiking.

Simon Fennell: Laura, from a geographic point-of-view, Acton is your central depot, but you’ve also got facilities in Spitalfield as well; what’s the geographic basis in terms of the profile of City Harvest now within London?

Laura Winningham: Yeah, so we’re in every borough right now. We started in West London, so we’re pretty deep into Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea. And then, because we’re in Spitalfield, so the areas around Newham, Newham’s a really deprived area where 47% of the children live in poverty, in staggering numbers that people just don’t know about — you know, it’s sort of in the shadow of Canary Wharf — but there’s extreme poverty. And now, because of this crisis, the need is so much greater.

So, yeah, I mean, we’re in every borough, it sort of happened organically, and now, we’re analyzing a little more closely the pockets that we should get deeper in. We have a waitlist, and we have to analyze it in terms of how we can make the best impact.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Let’s talk about growth and managing growth. I’m probably slightly off on the numbers, but you deliver something around like 90,000 meals a week, that’s a massive logistics operation. And clearly, you weren’t doing that at the start; you’ve grown very fast. How do you manage that? I mean, that’s pretty intense!

Laura Winningham: Yeah, the numbers have gotten even bigger, I think we had one of our biggest weeks ever last week. So, pre-crisis, some weeks we were doing, let’s say 30 tons, that’s around 65,000 meals; we just had a 70-ton week, that’s 150,000 meals. So, it’s a good question. We have a fleet of 14 vans right now, and it’s really complex logistics because we don’t know what food is coming in each day; every day it changes. And the charities on the routes, they have many different needs, different dietary requirements, and they’re open different times of day, some are serving dinner, some are serving lunch, so if we’re late, we miss the window of opportunity for them to accept the food. It’s very complex, it’s hard to even explain how we jumped that quickly, but we have a really dedicated team, that’s all I can say.

We have an app that routes the vans, and our vans go on regular routes each day, so every Monday, our fleet goes to a certain number of organizations, and that repeats each day. So, I think what happened was the charities that we were delivering to before the crisis all needed more food, the need was already there. So, when more food was donated, we actually were able to — we didn’t even have to add more community organizations, we brought more food to our existing partners, that simplified things. We then added new community partners on, and we’re looking at new ones.

But we have a logistics team that just sits and tries to figure it out, and it involves — I wish I could say technology did it, but it takes a lot of human interactions to make it work each day. There’s no — when we started this, we explored every app possible, but the complexities are just too great and it involves humans talking to each other to make it happen.

Simon Fennell: And Laura, the elements of that growth in terms of future growth are dependent on more vans; they’re dependent on bigger space within Acton and Spitalfield, is dependent on further food donations, how do you think about tweaking that from the growth perspective? Or is it just a question of trying to understand where the needs are?

Laura Winningham: Yeah, so we know the need is there, and in the last few weeks, we’ve made a commitment to scale-up. So, we are going to triple the amount of space that we have in Acton, and so, we’ll go from around a 3,000 square-foot warehouse to 9,000 square feet. While a lot more food has come in recently, a lot of that has to do with companies going into administration, or restaurants closing, so the volumes peaked, but our work is cut out for us to start finding some new additional food suppliers, regular suppliers. And we’ll always be limited by funding because we’re a charity. To keep our vans on the road, we need charitable donations, and it does come down to the number of vans on the road. So, each van can do a certain amount of food each day, so the capacity of a van is a little less than a ton, and a van could possibly do two routes in one day and do two tons, that will always be a limiting factor. Vans have to be added to the fleet to be able to grow, and that means more vans, more drivers — we pay our drivers, they’re not volunteers doing it — it costs us — like all-in costs around 50,000 to keep a van rolling each year. But the metric is that the retail food value that one van can redistribute in a year is around £500,000.00, so that’s a 10:1 ratio.

We get the food for free, and when each van goes and delivers the food to a charity, the charities that get that free food, they can reduce their food budgets and use that money for other essential services, so the ripple effect is really big; if one van delivers £500,000.00 of retail value, that is going out to other charities. But yeah, it’s many different things, and growth will require looking at many different things at once. Increasing charities, increasing food, funding, warehouse space, all of that. We have to try and get it all in sync, and we’ve been able to do that in the past.

Hugo Scott-Gall: I think there’s other organizations that have these logistical challenges, and I guess either studied what they do or asked them for help, you know, the very high volume, time — very time-sensitive because as you said, these are people who are hungry, and if you don’t get the food on time, it’s a huge, huge, thing.

Laura Winningham: Yes, we’ve reached out and tried to talk people, I think that the difference is that in the course — so if you have Econovan making a delivery, that driver leaves the depot with a fixed amount of food and knows where it’s going and can be timed and do it really quickly. But our drivers, when they make a collection, they don’t quite know how much food is going to be donated at each stop, and they’re not just collecting and then delivering, the routes go sort of pickup, pickup, delivery, pickup, delivery.

So, the drivers actually have to make decisions along the way; if they’re going to a charity that helps children, they’ll take the produce from the first donation stop and put it aside so that the children get the ripe fruit and vegetables. It’s more complex than when you think of other organizations that have time-sensitive stuff — and they also don’t have ad hoc calls coming in, we have calls from film shoots. So, a van will be out, and Pinewood will call and say, “Oh, such-and-such film just wrapped, do you want to just come get all the food from the set?” we’ll factor that into the route, if the van is in that direction, we’ll interrupt the existing route and add that in. And quite honestly, other organizations you might be thinking of don’t have this type of complexity; we haven’t really found an analogous situation.

Hugo Scott-Gall: That’s interesting; that’s interesting. So, you clearly, I guess, unfortunately, do need to grow because this is a problem that it’s kind of growing rather than shrinking, and you’re pretty confident that certainly from an internal process point-of-view, you can scale up, but I guess you need money. Can you talk a little bit about the funding landscape and the partnering landscape?

Laura Winningham: So, as you pointed out, we have grown quickly. You know, a couple of years ago, we were dependent on a few financial donors, just private individuals; that’s grown, we’ve had more corporate engagement, like William Blair. And companies are seeing that they could tick some of the boxes on their sustainable development goals by partnering with City Harvest, so zero hunger, sustainable cities, fitting climate change; I think City Harvest addresses around eight of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. So, there has been more corporate interest. Defra has focused on food waste, and they’ve provided some grants recently focused in this space, so that’s been helpful.

So, our funding has diversified, but because we’re scaling up, we need a lot more of it. And so, we’re looking at things like we have 15 vans on the road, they’re very visible, so we’re looking at corporate sponsorships for the vans. I do think that post-crisis, more companies are focused on this space, and they’re interested in making a local impact. So, you might have companies that were making very generous donations to food aid in Africa; they’re starting to wake up to the fact that in addition to that problem, there’s a problem in their backyard, and I think that that’s what this crisis has done, and that’s how it’s changed the landscape.

We at City Harvest have been aware that there’s tremendous hunger that people don’t know about, it’s sort of hidden hunger; it’s the working poor, people that have jobs but just at the end of the month, don’t have money for food. So, we’ve been aware of that, but I think this crisis has brought that to light. And so, we’re hoping that with that newfound wisdom all around us, that will help to keep our vans on the road, there’ll be more interest, more awareness about both food poverty and waste.

Hugo Scott-Gall: If you were prime minister for the day — let’s say for the week, not for the day, for the week, what would you do to help what City Harvest does? Is that removing some things and getting out of the way? Is it changing incentives? What would you do?

Laura Winningham: Yeah, so I think companies reporting their food waste is important; I think a couple of years ago, I might not have said that, I thought there was more of a willingness to donate food. But I think companies have to be more transparent. In countries like France, they’ve legislated, and supermarkets have to donate their surplus food to community organizations; I think the retailers larger than 45,000 square feet or something like that. Again, a couple of years ago, I would’ve said, “Oh, just the government should stay out of it,” I’ve changed my mind a little about that. I think because there’s so much food out there, there might have to be some legislation making it actually happen.

There’s also subsidies for anaerobic digestion that make it less expensive for companies to just take their food waste and just send it to anaerobic digestion; it’s really inexpensive because of the subsidies, and then they’re disincentivized to donate food because it’s so easy. So, what they do is companies can lump the edible and the inedible food together, they don’t have to take the time to separate out edible food, but lump it all together, and they send it off, it’s just easier for them. So, with those incentives in place, it makes it harder for us, so I think those are the main things.

Hugo Scott-Gall: One of the things that I’ve always been struck by is the difference in charitable giving in the U.S. versus the U.K.; you’ve lived in both countries, you’re a native of the U.S. But why do you think that is?

Laura Winningham: I don’t really have a theory; it’s just the culture. I should have a theory, but I don’t. It has been hard here, I have to say, but it’s changing, I think, with a focus on ESG. I think that’s making all the difference — I’ve sensed in the last 12 months a tidal shift, and yeah, I think there’s definitely going to be a change.

Hugo Scott-Gall: That’s really interesting, and that ties to something you said earlier on, which is really around I guess different generational attitudes, the younger generations are more engaged with charitable giving, more engaged with charitable work than previous generations of the same kind of age. Why do you think that is and is that increasing, and what can be done to accelerate that even further?

Laura Winningham: At City Harvest, we’re starting to focus on education. So, we just had a young people’s Food Waste Warrior award; we just had a Zoom award ceremony the other night, we think that’s the answer. So, the hard work I have convincing food companies to donate food, as I said earlier, that will be moot 10/20 years from now, all companies will be doing it. Because the people — the volunteers we have at City Harvest that are in their 20s, they are so committed to the cause. I mean, we have so many new volunteers since this crisis started because a lot of — when the restaurants were closing, we had at one point 70 trucks lined up to donate food.

And a lot of the companies that found us in March, their employees were furloughed, and so they’ve been volunteering at City Harvest. And the energy is so great, they’re all gonna go back to their companies, and if they see any waste, that will end. We have a few people that said even if their jobs do remain post-crisis, they’re gonna make changes in their life. They actually saw what we did at City Harvest, and they’re gonna go find purpose-driven jobs; it’s actually been remarkable.

And I actually think it’s long-lasting, that it’s not just a short-term COVID response. You know, the people I’ve been speaking to seem very authentic, very genuine, and they’re actually making life changes, so it’s really interesting.

Simon Fennell: Laura, the partners that you have — not so much the supporters, but the food donors are broader than one might think from the traditional supermarkets that you talked about. But also, it’s interesting to see sports teams or clubs involved with that, you mentioned Pinewood, but it’s a broader element from the donors there, can it get even broader than you have at the moment?

Laura Winningham: Yeah, it will get broader; I mean, it’s pretty broad right now, but I think it’ll get deeper. So, we’ve tried to find rep and events companies and restaurants all the way up to manufacturers and farms, but now we just have to deepen it. But again, during the crisis, Wimbledon, we normally get several tons of surplus food at the end of Wimbledon, and now we have them cooking meals for us, no tennis. And I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but several thousand meals will be donated. Crystal Palace started producing meals for us, and again, that’s thousands of meals, and they’ve just let us know that even post-crisis, they’re gonna continue doing it.

And that’s just another example of what I was saying before, we’ve seen this change where I think at the beginning of the crisis, people just — they wanted to do something, and everyone wanted to take action. But now, I actually think it’s gonna lead to long-lasting things, and Crystal Palace had just mentioned the other day that they’re really committed to this. We have the Savoy Hotel, Fulham Football Club, I think employees at these places enjoy doing something, giving back, it makes their life better. And we’ve told food companies that all along, that it’s not just giving food, your employees will feel better.

The Nando’s chicken donation program came about because they canvassed their employees, and they said, “What can make your life better?” It wasn’t about the environment, and it wasn’t about food waste, they just said, “What in your day will make — how can we get better retention?” and they were like, “We don’t like throwing out his food, it’s depressing.” So, yes, we think it will be far and wide, every organization that has surplus food should be donating it. But it’s awareness, and we’ve been focusing on operations the last few years, we haven’t had a PR or a marketing budget, it’s just been networking and word-of-mouth, so we’re limited by that.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Okay, well, I guess, Laura, you’re one of the few people who genuinely means it when she says she’s working as she can to make her job irrelevant; the better you do, the less need there is for you. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s gonna be the case in the short-term. Is there anything else we should’ve asked you that we haven’t done?

Laura Winningham: That’s a good question. In terms of corporates, there are other ways of getting involved — I think it we touched on it earlier — but I do think that if in companies where you are a shareholder, and you see that there are situations where there could be food waste or just other environmental things, change can actually be made that way and we’ve seen it. I have a couple of instances where a shareholder stepped in for City Harvest, and change was made. And the companies that were influenced really felt good about it afterwards; they actually didn’t know there was a solution. So, the investor pointed out the solution, and it was a win-win thing. So, I think ESG actually can make a difference — that focus on ESG.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Great. Well, we agree. Laura, thank you and actually giving us your time. Fascinating to really understand A.) Just the success you’ve had, but B.) How you run such a complex business on a daily basis doing such important, critical work. So, thank you for giving us your time. We enjoyed it.

Laura Winningham: Thank you. Thank you for having me on, appreciate it.

Simon Fennell: Thanks very much.

Meet Our Moderator

Hugo Scott-Gall, Partner

Questions, Comments, Podcast Ideas?

Create an
Enduring Partnership

Our active ownership culture creates long-term client relationships by aligning with your interests and helping you achieve successful investment outcomes. Contact us to learn how we can partner with you.


Left Menu Icon

Subscribe to Our Blog Now

Want the latest insights on the economy and other forces shaping the investment landscape? Subscribe to our blog today.