The author carried out research for this article before the coronavirus pandemic, and as per government advice, we urge readers interested in using Olio and other food sharing apps to do so with the current social distancing rules.
It is 11pm on a cold winter night and I am hovering outside a west London corner shop, waiting for a delivery. I see my contact, known only as NJ, turn the corner, walking briskly toward me in the chill night air. We nod in greeting and quickly confirm names before she opens up her orange carrier bag. "It was the swede you wanted wasn't it?"
My contact is one of several thousand Londoners signed up to Olio, the nationwide food sharing app which brings neighbours together over their leftovers. The app, which grew out of a north London WhatsApp group was launched in 2015 by Tessa Clarke and Saasha Celestial-One. Rather like a Freecycle for food, distributors post pictures of the items they want rid of, along with approximate location and allocated pick up times. Users search for tasty morsels by entering their postcode and distance range, then message the poster to organise a collection if something takes their fancy.
"Community spirit is more important than ever"
Especially right now, as supermarket shelves stand bare during the coronavirus pandemic, community spirit is more important than ever. Of course, safety is paramount, and Olio currently recommends 'no-contact' pickups where sealed items are collected from a prearranged location. The app also offers helpful guidelines on how to share safely.
Admittedly, the premise of taking people's unwanted food still feels beggarsome, and initially left the childhood mantra 'don’t take sweets from strangers' ringing loudly in my ears. However, all users are verified and completely traceable via the app. Sharing food is an excellent way to decrease the 910,000 tonnes (or seven million wheelie bins) of food waste London produces every year. This is made even more shocking by the fact that four million Brits are currently suffering from food poverty and fruit and vegetables are in short supply during the virus pandemic.
I decided to start the new decade on a greener note by eating dinners made from Olio produce for a week. My initial plan was to eat exclusively Olio food for the duration, but it wasn't feasible unless I existed largely on expired bakery products. I won't pretend I wasn't tempted.
As it frequently proved hard to find EVERYTHING required to create a meal, I adopted the Ready Steady Cook approach, where main components were salvaged, but larder staples could be added. Essentially, a dash of paprika or splash of oil were acceptable, but a sausage was simply a step too far.
From my first haul, I came home with a with two swedes, some chives, a tin of chickpeas and some runner beans. After adding some curry paste to the chickpeas, the resultant meal was surprisingly satisfying, if a little hodgepodge.
The next evening, I travelled to a tower block in Kilburn where a user named Tuesdae was giving away near-expiry date Tesco goods. The British supermarket is one of several food retailers, restaurants and catering companies which donate their surplus food to Olio. Nearby 'Food Waste Heroes' sign up to collect and redistribute the items in their area, while keeping 10% for themselves. That night's dinner was a not too shabby vegan bacon pie made with leftover swede and a chef's base mixture of root vegetables.
"Saving food involves getting lost"
I was quickly discovering that saving food involves getting lost. My Wednesday collection of vegan egg replacer and salad was from a warrenlike cul-de-sac in Acton. Eventually Karen, who it turned out was moving to Canada, kindly came and found me. I am one of the lucky vegans who was never keen on eggs, but hey…this was free so I followed the packet instructions and rustled up an omelette. Despite adding sundried tomatoes and more swede, my paltry attempt looked and tasted like fried PVA glue. The salad was nice though.
On Thursday I trekked to Maida Vale to pick up vermicelli noodle salad from a Food Waste Hero named Gilberto. A rather intense parka hooded man rose stealthily from a basement flat, and asked me in near fluent English if I could take all the salad. After a slightly stilted conversation he took my containers and returned below. I was left on a dark London street for a further eight minutes, feeling increasingly uneasy and unsure if I'd agreed to take a bucketful of noodles. My rather meek calls of 'hello' were going unanswered and entering a stranger's subterranean abode hardly seemed sensible. I was just envisioning the headlines; 'Middle-aged woman from west London missing; last seen searching for tofu' when my hero returned with my containers brimming with salad.
That same evening after several false starts, I ended up in a community-centre residents' meeting to collect some cashew nuts. This user, D, was especially tight on their personal security and observed me for a few minutes before approaching. Undoubtedly my hardest won meal, but my dinner of vermicelli noodles with tofu and cashew nuts was delicious.
"It felt strange to be surrounded by someone's family photos as they handed over the dinner they had cooked"
My Friday night dinner was leftover salad, rice and tofu kebabs from Food Waste Hero Margaret in Brondesbury. Now retired, Margaret told me to fill my tubs from the foil trays in her hall, which were left over from a corporate catering event. Margaret said she likes being kept busy outside her home and she enjoys the sense of community that Olio builds.
Margaret first joined Olio when she was getting rid of a sofa as the app also has a 'non-food' section. While the edibles page boasts some highly random listings such as '30 wasabi sachets' or 'opened pot of breadcrumbs' they pale in comparison to 'plane toiletries set' or 'dog ear cleaner' on the non-food side. But, as being free makes things infinitely more desirable, I did spend time pondering whether I could use a stethoscope round the house and had to firmly tell myself that I really didn't need vegan croissants more than once.
Saturday was another pre-made meal of Thai salad, chickpea tagine, and hoisin butternut squash salvaged from Planet Organic. Food Waste Hero Ida had forewarned Olio users that she would be posting items from 9pm, so I was poised with my thumb at the ready as the hour approached. Such items tend to go very quickly so I felt very fortunate as I plated up my Eastern fusion dinner.
My final meal was the first time I collected someone's actual leftovers in the form of a vegan niçoise salad from Olio virgin Venetia. She welcomed me and my containers warmly into her West Hampstead kitchen, explaining that she had cooked too much. It felt incredibly strange to be surrounded by someone's family photos and tweeting budgerigars as they handed over the (very tasty) dinner they had cooked. But Venetia was delighted to have popped her Olio cherry and said she planned to make great use of the app in the future.
"I saved £50.16 after collecting 19 food items from eight people"
According to the Olio app, a week of recycled dinners had saved me £50.16 after collecting 19 food items from seven people (even though it was actually eight — apparently an app glitch.) It was a very sobering thought that if not for the app, the food which had sustained me for a week would simply have been chucked. If sent to landfill, London's annual food waste alone would release 420,000 tonnes of climate changing CO2, making it even more essential to avoid wasting food.
But, the old adage of there being no such thing as a free lunch rang true during this challenge. To secure anything substantial, I had to be extra vigilant on the app, scrolling through countless lacklustre posts of opened jars of mincemeat and unfilled bao buns. Then yet more time was spent travelling to and from the pick-ups, with me driving a total of 39 miles, costing roughly £4 in petrol. This also added extra toes to the reduced carbon footprint I was aiming for.
While it was undoubtedly a bit of a faff, my week of salvaged suppers opened my eyes to how much perfectly edible food is thrown away, especially by retailers. Though it would be difficult to subsist entirely on Olio listings, perishable items like bread, vegetables and dairy are in constant supply for those who may need food. It is also heartening to see people so dedicated to helping out their neighbours. In these uncertain times, Olio is a fantastic resource which shows that sharing really is caring.