Stuffed: how Sinead Browne is redistributing surplus restaurant food while eliminating waste
The Brixton-based charity Compliments of the House is nourishing communities in Lambeth through a system aimed at combating food waste
The UK’s food poverty rate is one of the highest in Europe. Few statistics better capture the UK’s inequality than those detailing food insecurity – the inability to afford or access fresh, nutritious food. Despite the UK wasting almost 10 million tonnes of food a year, many people are still finding it difficult to feed themselves. Even before the pandemic, the Trussell Trust reported record levels of foodbank use, which increased by a third when Covid hit – leading the charity to distribute 2.5 million emergency food parcels between April 2020 and March 2021. With nearly half of Black and ethnic minority households living in poverty, access to food is an issue that affects communities of colour acutely. The problem is not a lack or surplus of food – the problem is capitalism. As long as food is considered a for-profit commodity rather than a social need, food waste and food poverty will continue to rise.
Enter Sinead Browne, the founder of Brixton-based food redistribution charity Compliments of the House, which collects surplus food from restaurants and delivers to those in need. Compliments of the House nourishes people with and through food – improving their mental and physical wellbeing and helping them find work. As we speak, she is on a staycation in the countryside – her first time off in two years. A former lawyer who grew up in the care system, Sinead is acutely aware that not all of her peers have been so lucky. While she received a scholarship to study at a top ten university, many of the people she grew up with were trapped “in a system where they were living hand to mouth and not allowed to thrive”.
“As long as food is considered a for-profit commodity rather than a social need, food waste and food poverty will continue to rise”
Having an interest in sustainability from a young age, she wanted to provide a solution to the problem of food waste and its negative effects on the environment, while also giving people a “hand up, not a hand out”. Founded in 2018, Compliments of the House has six core principles: community love, efficiency, fun, dignity, empowerment and inclusivity. “Dignity is very important, especially as I’ve been homeless,” says Sinead. Her vision for the charity is for it to be “a Tesco Express for people in need”, making food redistribution like this accessible and normal. The charity was initially self-funded by Sinead while working as a lawyer (with a gifted space, costs are very low) and she now runs the charity full time.
“Cooked food is such an untapped resource,” she says. A lot of vulnerable people can’t utilise the fresh produce they get from a food bank or food parcels because they have no access to cooking facilities. “Everyone is interested in fresh food – everyone is worrying about how they can access the vegetables, but nobody’s thinking about the cooked food”. The £3 billion of food waste coming from hospitality annually exemplifies just how big an issue this is.
“I’ve been in a hostel, I’ve been in a B&B; they don’t even have a microwave in their room. Going to a food bank would have been useless unless I’m going to eat milk and cereal and cold tins.” She laughs, but this is a key insight missing from so many food poverty programmes and shows just how important lived experience is for imagining new possibilities.
This isn’t just a cause for Sinead, this is personal. Building Compliments of the House was a transformative experience, radically improving her relationship with food after years of struggling with bulimia. She was in foster care since the age of two, and admitted to a homeless person’s unit at 16 – her early life mirrors a lot of the guests’, making her subsequent successes at 30 that much more inspirational, tangible and seemingly achievable.
“They’re not service users, they’re guests. They’re coming to eat the food, they’re coming to partake in the community, and I just wanted it to be that safe, comfortable space”Sinead Browne
Hospitality is at the core of what the charity provides. “They’re not service users, they’re guests,” says Sinead, noting that Compliments of the House’s name comes from a hospitality term meaning complimentary, a gift from the restaurant to the guest. “They’re coming to eat the food, they’re coming to partake in the community, and I just wanted it to be that safe, comfortable space. Many of our guests come every day. We all know each other’s names.”
While some guests are referred by social workers or local services, there are no specific criteria to access the hub – no ID, proof of income or benefits or immigration status required. Once a relationship is established with a guest, more personalised support is offered, such as work and housing support. Pre Covid, the hub was supporting between 40 and 75 guests a day, four days a week, and this number is only set to increase as communities rebuild after the pandemic.
Heavily gentrified Brixton is the perfect place for such an organisation. Black people from Lambeth, home to Brixton, make up 16.8% of the local population, but 39.6% of the food bank usage. Many Brixton residents can’t afford the food from the new restaurants in Brixton Village market, as they’ve been priced out. “£15 for a burger!?” says Sinead. “The average person can’t afford that – especially someone like a young mum with kids. But they can come to Compliments of the House and have that food from Pret, from Costa, from Franco Manca, Honest Burgers– they can get the same access for free and not feel othered or shamed”. Over 40 restaurants have signed up to the scheme so far, both donating surplus cooked food and offering work placements for the guests.
“Dignity is very important, especially as I’ve been homeless”Sinead Browne
The charity doesn’t just provide free food; there’s also a back-to-work scheme with training and support. “You have to give people the opportunity to be self-sufficient and independent,” says Sinead. Compliments of the House offers dedicated and personalised support depending on the guests’ unique contexts. “If you give people the tools to actually build themselves up, be a part of a community and see the worth in themselves, then they won’t even need the service anymore and they can actually put back into the community that’s helped them”.
As Black people, we often have a unique relationship with ‘charity’. While the media is over-saturated with poverty porn depictions of African countries, Black people in the west are often shamed by right-wing tabloids as ‘welfare queens’ for utilising government support. The charity model can also come from a place of paternalistic white saviourism, that centres white egos rather than community needs (see: voluntourism). Sinead sees the results of this daily: “We are othered already from the minute we come out of the womb, so there is that pride like we don’t need anything from the government, we don’t need charity. As West Indians, Africans, Latin Americans, wherever we’re from, there’s always that pride and sometimes it can be so damaging.” She wants guests to feel that they’re fulfilling their own ambitions rather than feeling shame when they join the back-to-work scheme. “We’re just a catalyst, they’re doing all the work”.
Compliments of the House operates what Sinead refers to as ‘Circle of Efficiency’ – an economic system aimed at eliminating waste. “The hub is our access to the community. If someone comes along, they come at first to get food. They come back because they’re a part of the community, then they come back again because there are ways we can help them,” she explains. Sinead’s mission to ‘nourish people through food‘ is a clear example of Full Spectrum Community Care, a concept created by Eshe Kiama Zuri to describe an intersectional, all-encompassing approach that reaches out to support people where they are and according to their needs.
From housing issues to healthcare, Compliments of the House’s volunteers and staff are trained to support vulnerable guests and connect them with additional services. Their latest project is a full-circle moment for Sinead, working with a major housing provider she had used when she was a homeless teenager. “A lot of care leavers don’t go onto uni, but there are a lot of resources available for them”, says Sinead. “We want to facilitate people making their lives better for themselves”.
The charity had to temporarily switch up its offering early on in the pandemic, becoming a delivery service after the hub and most restaurants were forced to close. For the guests, many of whom are immunocompromised, the delivery service became vital. Using a local community centre, the team created a Covid-safe, socially distant hub where they packed and distributed food sourced from cafes and supermarket donations. They soon became one of the main referrals for the borough. “We had a volunteer force that was ready and raring to go. We were one of the only charities in London that actually gave people fresh meat, fresh fish or veg alternatives, not just emergency provisions”.
“We were one of the only charities in London that actually gave people fresh meat, fresh fish or veg alternatives, not just emergency provisions”Sinead Browne
Every adult receives at least £40 worth of food a month from Compliments of the House, and extra provisions are given for cultural and religious needs. It’s a far cry from the Government’s pitiful food ‘aid‘ which saw tiny rations given to families, some including half a tomato. Guests create their own shopping lists and as the charity has guests with complex needs who are referred on from social workers, all volunteers are trained to ask the right questions to get them the most appropriate food parcel. This results in less waste and more agency for the guests. “If someone has access needs, they may need microwaveable meals; if they don’t have a fridge, they’ll need to have deliveries every few days, etc,” explains Sinead.
Sinead wants to ”make charity sexy” as she puts it, but her focus, for now, is creating some stability by crowdfunding for Compliments of the House’s own permanent hub in Brixton. “When you’re here today and literally gone tomorrow, sometimes guests feel like we just don’t care,” says Sinead. This lack of affordable access to physical infrastructure is sadly extremely common for Black-led organisations, but Sinead is not letting this stop her. With solid plans for new hubs in Hackney and Leeds opening in 2022 (Covid restrictions willing), paid for through their crowdfunding as well as community and council support, there’s tangible hope that an organisation with sustainability at its heart will go the distance too.