New Generation Leadership
Kelvin Cheung founded FoodCycle as a response to the simultaneous problems of waste and food shortage on the streets of the UK. Here he shares his passion for this work with Elizabeth Wainwright.
Kelvin Cheung shows that a clear vision, a commitment to empowering communities, and a belief that there are answers to the problems on our streets can work to provide immediate and tangible change. Inspired by a campus kitchen project in the US, and recognising the irrational existence of food wastage by shops and restaurants on the one hand, and food poverty and malnutrition on the other, Kelvin set up FoodCycle in 2008. Its purpose is to combine volunteer time, surplus food and unused kitchen space to create nutritious meals and positive social change in the community.
With an estimated 400,000 tonnes of surplus food reclaimable each year from the food-retailer industry, and with 4 million people affected by food poverty in the UK, Kelvin realised the pieces fitted together: “I thought, we should be doing something about this!”
So he did, working with volunteers to turn this surplus food into meals that are provided to members of the community who are most in need. But he didn’t stop there. On top of the issues surrounding food, he was also struck by the lack of skills amongst young people, which often makes it difficult for them to find employment and have a positive impact on their communities. By encouraging communities to set up their own groups of volunteers who work to turn food waste into meals, Kelvin has provided a “source of inspiration for young people – everyone can be a leader, everyone has that capacity”.
In turn, Kelvin cites Lily Lapenna, the young founder of the social enterprise MyBnk, as an inspiration. MyBnk works to provide skills, confidence and financial freedom for future generations. Kelvin and Lily are united in their belief that a strong vision and leadership from the heart are more important than formal training.
“To lead is to be the first one in and the last one out,” Kelvin says, “and to recognise that everyone is a potential leader. If you can provide the inspiration for them to do that – by being strong, by having the confidence to go where other people don’t, by being passionate – then you will help bring out their natural leadership.”
Kelvin talks about the bad press that young people so often get, and deals with it confidently, looking to his own experience to help him: “FoodCycle is packed full of examples of poverty, of food waste…but also of young people who are tackling it. When people speak bad of our generation, when they say we are not socially engaged, I tell them to look at what is going on in the communities that FoodCycle works with. It has become close to my heart. I am imparting my skills to other people, I am learning from others – we are working together.”
These skills are important, and FoodCycle provides practical training to fully equip all volunteers. “There is a lot of theoretical knowledge out there,” Kelvin says, “but a lot of it is very nebulous and not very helpful. We work by showing how this can be applied – practical things, like how to meet deadlines, how to manage a budget, how to write copy for the website. It has been a steep learning curve for me too!” It certainly sounds hectic at the other end of the phone when I call Kelvin at FoodCycle HQ. When we met previously at a Youth Funding Network Event, I was impressed with his simultaneous calm and passion – traits that help him knuckle down and work hard whilst still being aware of the vision he has.
In the short time the organisation has existed, FoodCycle has evolved from having a presence at a few key centres in London to having Hubs all over the UK. FoodCycle hopes to continue this growth, through inspiring young volunteers to take up the cause and make real social change in their own context.
FoodCycle has also started using its established model of working in a slightly different context, by branching out to Community Cafés. At the first café, in Haringey, London, volunteers provide hearty, affordable meals made from waste food to everyone in the community, not just those in the most need. Volunteers are trained for accreditation in Level 2 Food Safety for Catering – a skill useful in potential future employment.
“I love food, and I love working with young people,” Kelvin states resolutely. “I see myself as an entrepreneur and as a leader, but I don’t want others to put me on a pedestal. I want everyone to find that spark in their life that will bring out their natural leadership abilities. I want them to follow their hearts – finding your own passion makes you become a leader.”
In just two years, FoodCycle has gone from strength to strength. With Kelvin’s clarity of vision, and the dedication and passion of FoodCycle volunteers, there could be a lot for leaders at all levels to learn from their model.
For more information about FoodCycle, visit www.foodcycle.org.uk