A bumper crop of vegetables harvested from a giant edible chaos garden on the Blenheim Estate is being transformed into delicious meals to feed vulnerable people, thanks to an innovative Oxford community pop-up café that has become a lifeline during the pandemic.
Much of the produce grown by Richard Tustian at Blenheim, which includes parsnips, beetroots, leeks, cauliflowers, turnips, potatoes, carrots, pak choi, peas and pumpkins, has been donated to Oxford-based Waste2Taste to be used in their café at the Ark T Centre in Cowley run by Sandra Ruge and Marie Lehri.
Richard, whose day job entails looking after the Blenheim Estate’s herd of British White cattle, had originally planned to create a small chaos vegetable patch in his own back garden.
“This is a time for us to get together with kindness and respect and to help others to the best of our abilities, we are all in this together”
However instead he decided to randomly sow hundreds of vegetable seeds on an unused, half-acre plot of land within the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“The whole process was an experiment to see what was achievable with an area of unused ground and very little labour whilst embracing a natural process. Standard vegetable gardens tend to take a huge amount of time to maintain and are quite often very regimental with all produce planted in lines.” Richard said.
“Although these standard practises can produce huge amounts of produce from relatively small plots, they can also cause some issues with insect and disease pressures as it is easy for the problem to spread up the lines of regimental plants.
“Within the chaos garden I have seen less disease and pest problems and I put this down to the random spacing between the plants and quite probably the camouflage of certain plants by weeds.
“What is quite obvious from the chaos garden is that it would not produce as much produce as a standard veg plot, but it shows that you can grow nutritious food with relatively minimal labour,” he added.
“We then had to decide what to do with the crop. I wanted it to go to somewhere that would really benefit so we decided to take it to a pop-up café at the Ark T Centre in Cowley, Oxford.
The café is run by two amazing women called Marie and Sandra, who have created a catering service called Waste2Taste using surplus food to make delicious meals.”
The chaos vegetable garden project is one of a series of new initiatives being undertaken by the Blenheim Estate as part of its ground-breaking land strategy, which aims to utilise the Estate’s land for the benefit of local communities.
Café co-founder Marie Lehri said: “Richard from the Estate Team at Blenheim contacted us when he heard about our free meals scheme and we are absolutely thrilled that he has decided to donate this fantastic produce to Waste2Taste. Many of the families and individuals we are providing free meals to, are sadly experiencing food poverty or ill health.
“For these people healthy, nutritious and delicious meals are crucially important, with this wonderful produce we are able to provide them with exactly that.”
Marie added that since April 7, Waste2Taste alone have supplied almost 3000 free meals. “We deliver weekly food parcels to people we have identified through our Cooking for Health and Wellbeing workshops. Feedback from people who have been in receipt of the free meals has been very powerful – people have described the impact as a lifeline. We have now launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise £20,000 to enable us to keep going. It is going really well but we need a big push to get us where we need to be.”
Waste2Taste tackles food poverty and food waste, providing delicious, nutritious free meals to those most in need, and works with community partners to address food poverty and food waste in Oxford.
Marie added: “Oxford has high levels of homelessness, child poverty and food inequality. Using income from our acclaimed ethical, sustainable catering operation, Waste2Taste works in partnership to deliver training, outreach and delicious home-cooked meals to those most in need.”
In just three years, Waste2Taste has grown from the seed of an idea into a successful, grass-roots social enterprise. Before the pandemic they were struggling to keep up with the demand for their event catering service, and were looking to expand the team.
“Our Waste2Taste Community Café at the wonderful Ark-T had become a safe space where everyone felt welcome and vulnerable community members dropped in regularly. Waste2Taste’s Health & Wellbeing workshops for homeless and vulnerably-housed adults were so popular we had a waiting list and a brilliant cohort of trainees on supported placements in the Café and elsewhere. All of this, and still we fulfilled our commitment to donate 25% of our profits to a local homelessness charity.”
The impact of Covid-19 and then lockdown was dramatic for the project. Within days all event catering bookings were cancelled, and the café closed. Workshops were put on hold. Volunteers could no longer access their placements. Waste2Taste lost 100% of its income.
But instead of giving up, Marie and Sandra remodelled the social enterprise. “We didn’t allow Waste2Taste to go under or for activity to be put on hold. Instead, we remodelled. Teaming up with local partners Ark-T Centre, Flo’s The place in the Park and Oxford Hub we formed the #OX4FreeFoodCrew providing people who are shielding, the elderly, those who are experiencing food poverty or otherwise vulnerable with nutritious and delicious cooked food with the help of Oxford Food Bank , Sofea Didcot and Bucksum Farm.”
Lockdown may have been eased, but there is still a massive and growing need for food assistance. Waste2Taste is exploring new ways to increase its reach alongside rethinking their business approach in response to these changed times.
Marie said: “We have just launched a Pay It Forward scheme in our café, so people can buy a drink or a meal for someone else to have when they need it, and a newly evolving partnership with schools is helping us to reach the increasing number of families experiencing food poverty. However, we need to raise funds to support the enterprise through the next few months, to be able to continue to deliver our food equality programmes, training and volunteering whilst enabling us to redesign our model. We believe we can change lives.”
Waste2Tase needs to fund 200 free meals a week, secure staff, skills and resources needed to deliver the project and deliver Health and Wellbeing workshops.
Marie added: “By helping our project you are helping us to sustain our social enterprise overall core objectives, which in turn benefits and changes the lives of the communities with whom we work in Oxford. This is a time for us to get together with kindness and respect and to help others to the best of our abilities, we are all in this together.”
To support the crowdfunding campaign and find out more go to www.waste2taste.co.uk