Kelvin Cheung is the founder of FoodCycle, a charity that seeks to combine volunteers, surplus food and spare kitchen spaces to create tasty, nutritious meals for people at risk of food poverty and social isolation. We caught up with Kelvin to find out a bit about him and his work.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born in ’83 in Hong Kong, moved to Canada when I was six and lived there until about 2006. That’s when I moved to London. My parents were Chinese and wanted me to become a maths-whizz or doctor, but alas I wasn’t good at maths or science! I grew up wanting to contribute to society. Also I was maybe a bit rebellious in nature because my dad was a businessperson and he was never really around, and I didn’t want that, because I could only see the negative aspects of him not being around. I didn’t see the positive aspects at the time; only the negative aspects.
So I grew up wanting to become a teacher. I studied history and geography and I wanted to become a history teacher back at my old high school, because I think the past is very important for people to learn about. But also you get the summers off. Then I came over here to study International Development, with the basic idea that I wanted to teach about the evils of Capitalism! But through weird serendipity, I found an internship and met certain people, which spiralled into what I call the ‘trouble-causing movement’ of me starting my own charity in 2008.
And that charity is FoodCycle. Tell us a bit about how it works.
FoodCycle is very simple: we collect surplus food from local supermarkets, bring it to a local kitchen and cook it for local people. So it’s all local, local, local.
We want to find a solution to food poverty and social isolation. We see so much loneliness and boredom and we think the answer is community. At FoodCycle, people make friends and connections and it all starts with one great meal.
There are other charities that do large-scale logistics, like FareShare, but our aim is to mobilise groups of local individuals 52 weeks a year – snow, rain or shine – and get them to cook an amazing meal for about 50 people; 3 courses, sit down. We did it once and then realised we could do it more and more times, and now we’re at 17 locations across the country.
Where did the idea come from?
I think most things are inspired/stolen from others: from the books you read and the people you meet. For us it was an organisation called The Campus Kitchens Project in the United States. They do the same thing we do, but in Universities. So I went over there and said, “can we do something similar?”
We actually started out as a Student movement, but more and more we’ve rolled it out to people in the local community. So it’s no longer about Students helping the poor (which sometimes is a bit “Gap Year Ra Ra”) but now it’s about the community helping themselves.
How has FoodCycle grown since 2008 and what is your vision for how the project will continue to grow?
We currently have 17 volunteer hubs across the country. There is also our Social Enterprise in Bromley-by-Bow, which is our 5-day-a-week café, offering great meals at an affordable price to people in a community, which is essentially a food desert. There’s a McDonalds and a Tesco, but not too many other food options here.
We’re really inspired by Foodbank, the Scouts and the Girl Guides and the broad reach that they have. For us, it’s all about getting people together cross-culture, cross-religion, to share a meal together, knowing that amazing things can come from that meal. Wherever there’s a community, wherever there’s a supermarket, wherever there are people, wherever there is a church hall or community hall, there is a possibility for FoodCycle. So to put that in numbers, we want to have 208 hubs nationwide in the next ten years. Don’t ask me how the maths works out for that!
Having a good idea like FoodCycle is one thing, but how did you move from idea to implementation?
I’m fortunate to have very understanding parents who saw this as part of my education. So I just made a choice. I had one year left in London and knew that if this didn’t work out, I wouldn’t have a visa any more. The alternative was to keep applying for jobs and short-term internships, but I decided just to give it a go for a year. I made up a logo, put my name on a business card as the CEO and went for it.
In retrospect, I wasn’t really prepared for how hard it was going to be – lots of ups and downs – but when you’re passionate about something, you just go for it. And there were lots of challenges along the way – delegation, branding, all that sort of stuff. Health and Safety was a big one: convincing people you weren’t going to burn down their kitchen or poison anybody! We had to help people overcome the notion that we were using wasted food. So we call it surplus food.
My recommendation to others is to get a bunch of people together and do it in your part time. Events like the Good Ideas Pitch Night are great for that. I did it full time for a year before I got paid. For a lot of people that’s not feasible, so it’s about baby steps. Work on it over the weekend, or afternoons, or a day off, or holidays. Make sure it has solid foundations, before you go and quit your job to go full time. Do it over coffee, or a beer with friends. Over cake. It was hard work but boy was it fun.
I understand that you recently became a Christian. Can you tell us a little about how that came about?
It’s a fairly recent thing. I really couldn’t be bothered with religion, to be honest. I used to go to church as a child, but when I was about 16, I thought, “this isn’t too hard – don’t kill, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery – I can pretty much do that.” I thought that was all there was to it! So I left and just decided to live a good life by myself.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been a bit up and down. There’s an outward-facing side of me, that is happy to talk about things I’m passionate about, but at the deep-down level I was wondering, “is this all there is? I’m 30, I’ve got everything I’ve wanted, I don’t need any more, I’m quite accomplished, but I just feel lonely. What am I actually doing this for? What is it all about?”
That’s when I met some people from the Connect: Social Change group at ChristChurch London. They invited me along to one of their meetings. I didn’t know what these Christians would be like, but I found that I got on with them. We were passionate about similar things. Then I came along to church, began to pray, and found that it all started to make more sense than I’d previously thought.
What difference has faith it made to your life?
It’s given me foundations for who I am and why I do what I do. Previously my sense of identity was based on myself and what I could achieve. But in retrospect, I don’t think that was a great way to live, because all of us are fallible. We all fall and find ourselves unable to pick ourselves up. Faith in Jesus means I have a new identity rooted in a God who is utterly dependable. And I have someone with me who can share in my happiness and joy, but is also present in the really bad moments too.
Obviously you don’t have to be a religious person to do good for society, and I think there should be more collaboration between faith and non-faith groups. There shouldn’t be a gap. But before I was a Christian I was motivated by a desire to help others, but also by personal career reasons. Now I feel I have a greater motivation – wanting to honour God with the skills and passions He’s given me.
I love ChristChurch London because it’s a church that is passionate about action. For me, happiness isn’t found by sitting in front of a computer. I get joy when I’m doing things, serving and making a difference. I love the way the church puts faith into action, doing things together in God’s world.
You have recently stepped down as CEO of FoodCycle. What motivated that decision?
I’m a bit tired, to be honest! I wanted to do something else. But also I think that each organisation and each person has a lifetime. I like to start things up, have my back against the wall and build something from nothing. That’s what I’m really good at. When I have a 5-year plan I never follow it and I make trouble for the organisation, because I’m always wanting to start new things!
Over the past 2 years I’ve wanted to start new things, and the staff have been like “no – we’ve got enough going on!” So I know it’s time for me to get back to what I’m good at; starting things from scratch. And I know that FoodCycle’s future is best without me. They’re on the up and up. There is a great team and everybody’s on the mission collectively.
I’m behind FoodCycle 100% of the way still, but also realise that my contributions are best done from out of the office!
So what’s next for you?
When I started FoodCycle, I was given about £5,000 and a lot of help to get going and I’m sure there are a lot of other people who have ideas and just need a nudge.
The organisation that helped me is called UnLtd. They’ve funded over 10,000 people across the country. We’re going to take that model back to Hong Kong and help people who have great ideas, but just need a little money and a lot of help to turn their idea into reality.
Don’t bother looking for it yet though on Google. It doesn’t exist. I need to make a website. Business cards. T-shirts. Exciting times!
If you would like to find out more about FoodCycle volunteer at one of their hubs, check out the website, foodcycle.org.uk. If you have a socially innovative idea, check out unltd.org.uk and see if you can get some funding to start it up!
And to find out a bit more about what FoodCycle does, check out this short video: