Interview with Laura Winningham CEO of City Harvest

Laura Winningham, CEO of City Harvest London, is a co-founder of London’s first large scale, last-mile, food redistribution effort to connect surplus food with those facing hunger.  Our co-founder Mecca Ibrahim caught up with Laura to find out more about their work, her inspirations and what has been happening with food rescue during lockdown.

Laura Winningham CEO of City Harvest

What was your impetus for founding City Harvest?

I was familiar that in other major cities (NYC, Sydney, Toronto) around the world there are deeply embedded last-mile food rescue efforts: organisations that connected surplus food from retailers, wholesalers and events to organisations serving vulnerable people.

Who were some of the first organisations who got involved with donating food? How did you convince them to come on board? 

What City Harvest does, just makes sense. 27% of Londoners live in poverty and tons of perfectly edible food goes to waste in London.  We connect the two.  Our biggest challenge was getting the word out—because once people hear the story they are immediately interested in getting involved. We were fortunate to find enthusiastic advocates early on such as Charlie Bigham, who gave us both food and vans.  Whole Foods, Morrisons and Nando’s were also very early supporters in terms of food and funding.   Proving that our model is something that is win-win for businesses, all our original partners are still working with City Harvest 6 years on.

City Harvest van with rainbow

What happened immediately after lockdown when there was both panic buying and restaurants were closing?

When lockdown began, we had hundreds of restaurant and hospitality companies across London delivering unused food to City Harvest. City Harvest has always prided itself on being a rapid response unit for surplus food, getting food to charities across London safely and rapidly in our refrigerated fleet.  In a sense we’ve always been prepared for this moment.  Almost 120 tons arrived in the first few weeks.  We were enormously fortunate to be supported by Segro, who offered City Harvest a large storage unit for all this additional food.  Without the additional space, we could not have accepted these high-quality donations as we were already at full capacity.  Food was donated by Hawksmoor, Honest Burgers, Wasabi, The Savoy, Selfridges Food Hall, Sushi Samba, Pizza Pilgrims and many other well-known establishments around the City.   I’m really pleased that even in these very dark moments of the pandemic, there were individuals who took the extra step to make sure no food was wasted.

Have you noticed a difference in donations now and what do you think may happen going forwards?

We have many new partners on board who before this COVID crisis weren’t aware that a solution existed for surplus food.   I’m pleased to say that word has spread, and many more people know that all unused food should be donated to people in need. The charities that receive our food welcome the wide variety and quality of the food that we deliver and that is thanks to all our food donor partners—but many more partners are needed as this crisis unfolds.  Demand is escalating.  Our charity partners, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, family centres, refuges for women fleeing domestic violence – have seen triple the demand for food from the communities they serve – and this will not end.  The need will be escalating as jobs and incomes vanish and children, who have been supported with free school meals, are not in school.

How can the public get involved in your work?

As a registered charity we can’t do our work without the generous financial support from the public.  Nor can we deliver 200,000 meals each week without the help of an enormous number of volunteers.  At our depots we have such exciting groups of people, who value the opportunity to come together, meet new people, and do something great.   Volunteer opportunities are on our website cityharvest.org.uk.

What are some of the projects you are most proud of, or which have made the biggest impact?

City Harvest has delivered almost 12 million meals to people in need – I suppose that’s the impact I’m most proud of.

Jenny Costa Rubies in The Rubble

Who are some of the people you find most inspiring in business and in the food world?

Knowing the many challenges of building a business (or charity) from scratch, I will always be inspired by the many people who have persevered and done just this, especially when they have a focus on sustainability and nourishing products – people like Charlie Bigham, Jenny Costa (Rubies in the Rubble) and Jane Milton (food industry expert).

Have you found any particular advantages from being a woman in the food industry?

I have always focused on doing the best work I can possible do, in any role, and that has been my advantage.  In meeting food companies as I built City Harvest, I’ve welcomed the opportunity to meet an abundance of women who have started new, exciting companies in this sector, and welcome the support they’ve given to City Harvest.

City Harvest Team

What’s the biggest thing that you know now, that you wish you could have told your younger self?

Managing people is the most challenging side of running a business, at least for me.  I wish I could go back in time and take many more organisational behaviour and psychology classes in uni and business school.  I thought (mistakenly) that my focus on numbers was all I needed to succeed on Wall Street and beyond. People are at the centre of everything, and at some point we all need a little help.

City Harvest Festival

The 18th September to 16th October 2020 marks the City Harvest Festival a celebration of kind people doing powerful things with food. Find out out how you can  Be Kind and give a ‘Virtual Food Box’. There is also a  ‘Kindness is Powerful’ free open-air exhibition in Portman Square Garden taking place over the Harvest Festival weekend, highlighting the charity groups City Harvest work with. 

Watch this space for more inspiring interviews with women in the food and drinks industry. In the meantime you may be interested in our interview and podcast with Renée Elliott founder of Planet Organic, our interview with  Natalie Campbell CEO of Belu Water ; our interview with Nicola Matthews UK Marketing Manger of Tony’s Chocolonely ; our interview with Emma Heal MD of Lucky Saint  and  our interview with Alicia Weston CEO of Bags of Taste.

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