Charitable Consumption

Eating out, and eating in fine restaurants can be a sensitive issue. It’s an inherently indulgent activity centred around consumption of the best ingredients, prepared in the most caring way, served to those who have enough spare cash to enjoy it. All this whilst over 4,000 people sleep rough on the streets of London, thousands live below the breadline and refugees struggle to obtain asylum across the country.  Sadly, it seems this disparity is easily forgotten as we happily spend all weekend working our way through the city’s offerings. New restaurants, cafes and concepts open every week, and for someone interested in food, it can be all too easy to get swept up in the excitement and waves of flavour and culture that endlessly break in the British restaurant scene. Yet, the social and environmental issues we face are becoming ever more pertinent and pressing.

Luckily, Corporate Social Responsibility efforts are at an all time high, with companies far and wide coming together to combat social issues. This ranges from Iceland’s pledge to go plastic-free by 2023, to the work from apps like Olio or Karma who strive to make the most of others’ waste, be it from individuals or restaurants. This is largely a response to the growing global realisation that we cannot go on living as we are now, our oceans contain over 165 million tons of plastic, there’s a floating micro-plastic dump (The Great Pacific Garbage Patch) the size of Texas or the size of Russia depending on who you ask. The restaurant and food industries have been at the centre of criticism, accused of wastefulness, overuse of resources and careless conduct. This is now an issue we face globally and is spurring on local change and activism. Living in London myself, it’s encouraging to see the number of anti-waste initiatives growing steadily, and long-standing projects now getting the recognition they deserve.

For years, the charity landscape of London has seen restaurants, social purpose groups and individuals give back to those in need. Businesses like The Breakfast Club are a longstanding example of this movement, serving great (very grammable) food, to a highly engaged generation who want their money to go further than the investors’ pockets. The Breakfast Club have CSR at their core, they’ve worked with a huge range of charities and initiatives for several years, giving back to their local and wider community.

This model recognises the privilege we have as diners and uses this to create an experience that is both emotionally and physically gratifying. What makes The Breakfast Club stand out is the way it constantly reinvents charitable consumption, making it endlessly engaging to customers old and new. Their projects range from hosting ‘First Dates’ inspired events for adults with learning disabilities, to pancake eating challenges (12 in 12 minutes, a typical Sunday for me…) where failure leads to donation.

Taking a more straightforward path,  Streetsmart charity is another brilliant example of how the restaurant industry capitalises on consumption to give back to those in need.  Founded in 1998, Streetsmart works with collaborating restaurants to add £1 to every table’s bill during November and December annually. This £1 is inconsequential to many, but leads to huge sums raised, like last year’s incredible £662,000 and over £8.2million since Streetsmart’s inception. The charity functions nationally but much of its fundraising comes from London, where our collective love of good food, and high-concentration of fantastic and generous restaurants and chefs, has helped raise money for those who need it most. The money raised in each city is distributed to specialist homeless charities in the area, providing essential care year-round, from a bowl of soup to career counselling.

The Streetmart idea works brilliantly as it is able to span both Street Food markets like KERB, London institutions such as Claridges, and those vibrant restaurants that feed London’s insatiable appetite for experience and adventure (see the likes of St John Bread & Wine, Lyle’s and Black Axe Mangal). Unsurprisingly, Fergus Henderson is a big supporter.

Of course, there are the individual chefs who set up their own initiatives off the back of their personal success. Such is Massimo Bottura’s Refettorio Felix, and The Felix Project. The former serves lunch each weekday to locals from underprivileged backgrounds, and is supplied by the latter, a food waste charity.  Bottura’s commitment to the community, and to cutting waste, is endlessly impressive, and something he has replicated in restaurants across Europe. A longstanding ambassador of the Slow Food movement, Bottura has always been influential in this field, and it’s brilliant to see him carrying the flag in London and continuing to inspire others.

From the top-down changes enforced on UK supermarkets to reduce waste, to grass-roots organisations born from individual passion and ingenuity, the food and restaurant industry is making a positive impact in more ways than one. In fact, there are countless establishments up and down the country that feed those in need, run sustainable restaurants or open food banks fed by supermarket waste.  Food is central to community, culture and social cohesion, and initiatives like these that are crucial in closing the gap between consumption and ethics nationwide.

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