Interview: Lucy Antal, Alchemic Kitchen

Lucy Antal is the NW project manager for Feedback Global’s Regional Food Economy, developing new networks of sustainable food projects and promoting a circular economy approach to food surplus – using it to feed people, animals and the soil, with a particular focus on the North. The Alchemic Kitchen is the social enterprise that has developed from that project.

We discussed the importance of changing individuals mindset to food waste, the challenges of starting a social enterprise and Lucy's WOW moment.

Alchemic Kitchen is part of Feedback, a national charity working to create sustainable food systems. How did it all begin?

The regional food economy project NW has three aims – to educate people on the value of food, to advocate for policy change on the reuse of food and public procurement to support local food economies and to create a replicable social enterprise model that demonstrates circular food economy principles. The Alchemic Kitchen has evolved from this.

At the heart of your enterprise is a desire to educate individuals and communities on the value of food, and also to give back through training. Can you explain this further?

It is really important for us to share our expertise and to give back to communities. We have worked with military veteran groups and their families in Liverpool and Knowsley to go to farms, pick over produced crops, share our cooking skills and have a family style meal together.

Our visits to the farm are usually very muddy and extremely good fun. It’s amazing just how much we can pick in a couple of hours. Lots of the fresh produce is sent to FareShare for redistribution, and all volunteers are welcome to take produce home. We have also supported family days at Prescot’s Eaton Street park – with workshops demonstrating how to make the most of stale bread, what to do with pumpkins, other than carving them (!) and bake your own fruit crumbles.

We are also supporting local residents as part of the Georges project with One Ark, Groundwork and Incredible Edible Knowsley, to support reskilling and social interaction. We are planning to offer qualifications in food preparation and hygiene through Myerscough College.

Your products are available through Etsy through a subscription service. What do customers receive?

All of our products are made from surplus perfectly edible food, be it from farms or from wholesale fruit and vegetable markets. We are introducing ourselves with a Christmas hamper that will contain a couple of our delicious preserves and a surprise item, plus a newsletter and recipe cards for £12.50. We are launching a subscription service in the New Year with seasonal goodies sent out every quarter.

Hampers we’ve sent out have included Scouse Ketchup, Eastern Promise Jam, Traffic Light Chutney and apple blondies, which are made with apples gleaned in National Trust estate, Speke Hall. Our development chef Keenan is currently experimenting with used beer grain to make some wonderful products to be included in the Christmas hampers. You can also expect festive grape jelly, spiced marmalade and much, much more.

Food waste is a national and international issue. How do you think we have got to this point in society when so much food is just thrown away and discounted without care?

Just to give you some idea of the scale of the problem, 1.9 million tonnes of food is thrown away each year in the UK (fareshare). Only 12% is from industry, and a whopping 70% is from households (WRAP). We still aren’t sure just how much food is grown on farms and ends up being ploughed in because of cancelled orders, veg not quite meeting the supermarket’s specifications or changes in the weather (climate change means this is only going to get worse).

We’ve got to this point through a lack of communication in the supply chain and an obsession with perfection in our shops and homes. We need to eat more seasonally to make the most of the produce grown close to home and plan meals to avoid bin full of just off food at the end of the week.

On the upside, things are improving. Supermarkets and consumers are more switched on than ever to the causes of food waste, but there is still a long way to go. We want people to change from passive consumers to active food citizens who understand the intrinsic value of food goes beyond purely focussing on price.

What do you feel will change peoples minds and behavioural habits to ensure this doesn’t carry on?

It’s hard not to want to change your ways after reading those figures. As a society, we have also lost the art of preserving. Within half an hour, it is possible to turn ripe fruit into delicious jam or cake. Time pressures of modern life and the constant dazzle of the supermarket promoting ever more expenditure have reduced our collective knowledge.

Reconnecting with old techniques to preserve the life of food means we can create our own masterpieces to be enjoyed all year round without resorting to purchasing food completely out of season. From my point of view, the best way to achieve this is through communication, education and demonstration. In many ways children are leading the way on this, and are telling their parents and adults that they want to eat in a more sustainable way.

Food and cooking is a great way of bringing communities together. What has been your WOW moment since starting the enterprise?

I have to say the most overwhelming moment was on a rainy August afternoon in Eaton Street Park Prescot. We had rocked up ready to teach 200 school children to cook their own lunch from surplus food when the heavens opened and we were all immediately soaked to the bone. To our amazement, it didn’t phase the children one iota; they carried on and showed us how it is done. That day, with the aid of many little helpers, we got the show on the road and made plenty of hummus, summer rolls and veggie stir-fries. I found their enthusiasm completely overwhelming and reminded me why we do what we do. It’s also been hugely rewarding taking people out to the farms, where they can see the fresh produce growing and really understand the effort put in by farmers.

Starting an enterprise has its highs as mentioned, but also its challenges. What have been the biggest challenges since starting?

Narrowing down the field of opportunity. We’ve been thrilled by the amount of support offered by people and organisations, but we have to be mindful that we are still starting out and as a small team, we can’t do everything we are asked. Having said that, we’ve managed so far! A physical challenge was getting our container kitchen into place in the courtyard space. Amazing what three farmers, a telegraph pole and tractor can manage.

Who has inspired you in this sector?

I was hugely inspired by the Clink charity, who work directly in prisons to train inmates in food preparation so that they have new opportunities on release. Giving people opportunities and support to explore them is really important to me, and using food to do so seems such a natural fit. What can be better than sharing food with a stranger to create a friend?

From a personal perspective, I grew up as the daughter of a refugee student from Hungary, preserving, reusing and not wasting food is ingrained into my DNA. I get huge pleasure from creating new recipes and playing with flavours to enhance and revalue food and edibles (e.g. leftover beer grains) to ensure it’s eaten not discarded.

If you could get in the infamous time machine and fast forward to this day in 5 years, where would you like Alchemic Kitchen to be? What significant milestones would you have liked to achieve?

We’d be firmly established as a social enterprise, generating enough income from our products and catering to run our workshops, create employment, and offer training opportunities to everyone who’d benefit from it, rescuing food, people and planet. We’d love to replicate what we do in other spaces across the UK.


About Lucy Antal

Lucy Antal is the NW project manager for Feedback Global’s Regional Food Economy, developing new networks of sustainable food projects and promoting a circular economy approach to food surplus – using it to feed people, animals and the soil, with a particular focus on the North. The Alchemic Kitchen is the social enterprise that has developed from that project.

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