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City Harvest: Like a Box of Chocolates

An Interview with Adam Svoboda, COO City Harvest

City Harvest has grown so quickly since we started, and the most exciting thing is the diversity of our team and the common threads that brought everyone together. We've asked City Harvest's COO how he came to be part of this special team and what it means to him.

Adam, how did you find City Harvest?

London has been a city of great opportunity for me, and I wanted to find a way to “give something back” in a personally meaningful way. I’m passionate about food, so I started researching food-focused projects in London. What I found was a whole spectrum of organisations doing really great work, from peer-to-peer food sharing to community meal focused projects. I signed up for several volunteering opportunities, one of which was as a Driver’s Mate with City Harvest, riding along in one of the vans to help collect and deliver food. During that initial day out, I got to speak to the resourceful and (very) driven City Harvest team, some deeply committed food donors, and food recipients ranging from a friars’ group to community meal service for the elderly and socially isolated. Together, these conversations painted a picture of a truly unique organisation – one which was successfully operating on a very significant scale (ca 5 tonnes of food rescued per week at that time), but with the DNA of a small community grassroots organization, where deep, personal partner relationships, empathy, optimism, and flexibility are just as important as efficiency and reliability.

How has City harvest changed since you started?​

I got involved with City Harvest in November of last year and between then and now, the growth has been staggering – a few milestones in this period have included the acquisition of a fantastic office space (our first!), a state of the art warehouse with storage for ambient, chilled, and frozen food, and a continually expanding fleet of refrigerated vehicles. But these are just the tools – the really important part is that this growth has allowed us to significantly expand the impact we’re making, and enabled our team to deliver nearly 3 additional tonnes of food per week to our partner organisations.

How have you changed since being at City Harvest? (touch feely i know!)

I don’t think I’ve really changed as a person– but I do think I’ve developed more of a sense of personal responsibility as a result of learning more about the food ecosystem, particularly around food waste. The headline statistics were pretty shocking– between 1/3 and ½ of food produced globally goes to landfill. An even bigger revelation for me is that the large majority of preventable food waste happens in the home rather than upstream at the production level – I had no idea. Since learning this, I’ve changed both my food shopping and food prep habits. Now, I plan the meals I’ll cook during the week ahead of time and shop accordingly, as opposed to just going to the market and throwing a load of stuff in the cart, half of which would likely end up sitting in the fridge for a couple of weeks, going off, and getting binned. I’ve also tried to be very conscious when cooking. So whereas potato peels used to go into the bin, now I use them to make crisps. Veg peelings, bones, bits of meat can go into soup stocks. Herbs that don’t get used can be dried in the microwave, or frozen. It turns out there’s a hack for almost every bit of food “waste” you can think of. As a result of these really simple habit changes, I’ve got a lot less food going into my bin on a weekly basis - this adds up over a lifetime. I’m also getting noticeably more mileage out of my food budget, because the stuff I do buy now goes a lot further.

What is the most surprising thing to you about the organisation?

Without question, the passion of the people that work here. I was blown away when I saw our drivers in action. For them, food rescue is not just a job -- it’s a personal mission, and you can see it in everything they do, every interaction they have over the course of a day, each little way in which they “go the extra mile” to make sure our partners get what they need. Several have experienced food poverty first hand, and all have deeply personal relationships with the folks they are working with on a day to day basis. But what’s equally as great – and this is something I was really not expecting -- is that the same mentality extends all the way across the organisation. Everyone, up to and including the board of Trustees, takes a very active role, everyone is excited to be contributing, and no one is too proud to roll up their sleeves and lend a hand wherever needed. You don’t see that everywhere!

What’s your favourite food?

Given a month to really ponder it, I might be able to narrow it down to a tentative, heavily-caveated list of top 100 foods… and I am fairly certain no one wants to read that! Next question.

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What’s the most unique thing you’ve seen donated to City Harvest?

There’s the famous Forrest Gump quote: “life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you gon’ get.” The same holds true with City Harvest. Fresh fruit, veg and proteins are always top of the pops with our recipients, but in addition, I’ve seen vans pull up with goodies ranging from pink Himalayan rock salt to popcorn, industrial sized bags of dates to posh cakes, and bouquets of fresh flowers. Food is our main focus, but we do also accept non-food items. One of my favourite City Harvest stories, which I think really illustrates what’s best about the organization, is from this past winter. We received a call in the late afternoon from someone who had a couple thousand shirts with an image of David Bowie that couldn’t be sold for some reason or other. Could we help? Our logistics team hit the phones, arranged the pickup, and within a couple of hours there were community organisations handing the shirts out to men, women and kids sleeping rough around the city. Thanks to that one phone call and a little elbow grease, hundreds of people got an extra layer of clothing on a particularly cold night – and over the next few days Mr. Bowie’s face was commonly sighted around town! If we weren’t as flexible in our operating model, or didn’t have the right relationships with community organizations to know who to call, something like that would never have been have been possible.

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