Dr Andre Philips, Teaching Fellow in Reproductive Biology for the Biomedical Teaching Office began volunteering for Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts (EK) during the first lockdown, and now it has become a huge part of his life.
EK was created in the early stages of the pandemic, to combat the huge number of chefs out of work, food insecurity and the large amounts of food waste. “A motivated group of chefs, kitchen and logistics staff sought to deal with all three issues at once. Using their skills to source food going to waste from supermarkets, cooking into healthy meals, and getting it out to people in need across Edinburgh,” Andre explains.
“Since starting in about March 2020, they have sent out more than 1.3 million meals, without means testing or judgement, saved tonnes of food that would go to landfill and contribute to global warming, kept chefs, and volunteers motivated and skilled through lockdown and trained up kitchen assistants to allow more job opportunities for those trainees.”
Andre has always loved cooking, and cooks for others frequently: “I often cook for friends or bring in pots of curry for lunch at work. Friends mentioned hearing of this organisation and recommended I should get involved. Though absolutely none of my cooking skills were of any use when cooking more than 1,500 meals a day, anyone can get stuck in packing, chopping, delivering. No prior knowledge required!”
But it’s not just the cooking that Andre loves about being involved with EK. It’s the other volunteers too: “These people are devoting a huge amount of their time (I only pop in once a week!) to help other people, because they know it’s the right thing to do.
“Rarely does a solution so elegantly solve many problems at once. It has not been easy for EK setting up, dealing with massive increases in demand, and now moving base. But the people there are so passionate and will do so much to help those in need,” he continues.
Volunteering with EK has its challenges too. Although they operate a no questions asked policy, many people share their stories of suffering with the volunteers: “Asking for help when you can’t afford food is hard, and going through means testing is often a degrading experience. So EK feeds anyone who wants it. No questions asked. Some people may not need our help, but that is vastly offset by those who would otherwise not ask or feel a stigma.
“Meeting people EK helps, you are exposed routinely to people and their stories. Their suffering, though no fault of their own, cannot be ignored when you get involved.”
Although the pandemic highlighted the desperate need for these kinds of charities, there’s good news too: “We also get to hear from people who no longer need our help, that the consistent food has given some stability to build a better life for themselves.”
Something for everyone
So what does a typical shift look like and what kind of work is involved? Andre explains: “There is a huge variety in tasks that you can help with at EK. I volunteer as a kitchen assistant every Wednesday, 5:30 to 9pm. I chat to other volunteers while chopping through 25kg sacks of potatoes, carrots and whatever has been donated then helping clean up and close the building.
“But alongside the kitchen are the packers, who make up the day packs of breakfast, soup, dinner and snacks. We have people delivering these packs directly to the doors of those who need it. There are also service staff who feed anyone who drops by, and admin staff who keep us all on the right jobs. All these shifts vary in length, skills needed, and everyone finds a role that they enjoy the most.”
For a lot of people, the difficulty of volunteering is not having enough time. But for Andre, the work complements his day job and has become a key part of his life outside of work: “The variety of people volunteering at EK is astounding, I have met other staff and students from the universities, kitchen trainees, investment bankers and oil riggers. We all find something to complement our jobs.
“There are many evening and weekend shifts, but importantly for me, the manual work helps balance my thinking brain after teaching and planning assessments,” he continues. “Many of the university staff at EK have echoed the same, discussing how much we gain from helping out.”
Another option is the University’s Day to Make a Difference scheme, where all members of staff are entitled to an additional day of leave a year to volunteer. To use your day, all you need to do is find your opportunity, pick a day, and request it through People and Money, just like your annual leave: A Day to Make a Difference.
Andre has loved getting involved with EK and encourages colleagues to do the same. He’s happy to chat about the process to anyone who might be interested: “Get in touch! I’d love to chat in more detail, there may even be some people in your team already involved. Going in pairs or groups can be a fantastic way to start out, and packing is always a great place to begin as it is very sociable and lets you understand how the whole process works.
“If you’d like to volunteer we’ve just moved to Granton and check out the EK Website or get in touch with me!”
Andre also knows that this isn’t always possible: “I understand not everyone can donate time, if you can donate money, we are striving to ensure we can feed everyone who needs it this Christmas. Please consider donating and know you’ll be feeding a person a day for just £1.50.”
You can donate to EK on their crowd funding website.
Find out more about EK on their website.