The Country Food Trust has produced 1.5 million meals for people in need, but with an estimated 8.4m people now in food poverty across the UK, chief executive officer Tim Woodward believes it is just the beginning for the charity. Clemmie Gleeson reports.
After an extremely busy few months supplying meals to organisations supporting people through the Covid-19 pandemic, Tim Woodward, chief executive officer of The Country Food Trust is taking stock.
He says: “Our initial goal was one million meals in the first five years of the charity, and we have smashed through that quite significantly.
“In fact, having reached the 1m target in June 2020, by August, the total stood at 1.5m meals.”
The charity was launched in 2015 after Tim left his investment banking career and moved from London to Somerset.
“One of my commodity clients owned a shooting estate and said that he had an idea he’d like me to take forward,” says Tim.
His client had recognised that there was a problem with food poverty alongside excess production in the game meat market.
The question, Tim says, was whether pheasant meat could be utilised to help feed people in need. So, in 2015, Tim started visiting charities and food banks.
He says: “I asked them what they were not getting enough of and it was protein.
“Often the food they were being donated was also not very nutritious.”
While Tim has 25 years’ experience as an investment banker and commodity broker, this was new territory for him.
“I understood supply and demand, but not about food,” adds Tim.
“I spent a lot of time speaking and listening to people, food producers, game keepers and so on, the whole spectrum.
“Feedback was that it was a great idea and that nobody was doing it already.”
With the financial backing of a committed group of people, Tim was tasked to launch and run the charity.
“It was a steep learning curve in the early days with a few ‘brilliant ideas’ that didn’t work in reality,” says Tim.
He and his supporters soon settled upon a simple concept that worked well using existing distribution channels.
“We don’t pick birds up from shoots,” Tim says.
“There is already existing food chain infrastructure in place that does that and we didn’t want to replicate it.
“We buy meat from game dealers and deliver it to charities that can cook it.”
Soup kitchens and other organisations which cater for large numbers of people are set up to prepare and cook food and therefore can receive, store and use pallets of meat.
However, the bulk of the offering from The Country Food Trust is its innovative ready meals which come in individual pouches.
“Most food banks and other charities handing food out don’t have freezers or refrigeration,” Tim says.
“Their capacity is very limited. They wanted ready meals, which is what we have created.
“It’s a very clever army ration pack. The meals are cooked at very high temperature which kills all the bugs and means it becomes an ambient product.”
“I spent a lot of time speaking and listening to people, food producers, game keepers and so on, the whole spectrum."
The recipes were created by chef Tim Maddems who wrote The River Cottage Handbook on Game. Tim specialises in creating dishes using ethically produced, sustainable and locally sourced ingredients.
His two recipes for ’The Country Curry’ and ’The Country Casserole’ have become the two staples of the charity’s offering.
The ready meals are produced by a third party food business and delivered to food banks and other organisations via larger charities which specialise in redistribution including Fair Share, The Felix Project, Trussell Trust and UK Harvest.
Tim says: “We send them pallets of meals and they split them out. We also have 50 of our own ambassadors around the country who can take a pallet each and store it before delivering smaller quantities to local organisations. This way each charity gets the right amount for them.”
While game meat remains the main focus, during the Covid-19 lockdown the Trust’s buying policy changed to meet demand and fill gaps.
Tim says: “As a lot of restaurants closed suddenly their suppliers were left with lots of ducks, turkeys and chickens in their stores. This was the right time to get food out, so we delivered a much wider range of protein. It has always been part of the plan to expand and utilise products when they are more available.”
One of the organisations to benefit was Hospitality for Heroes, a temporary set-up which saw London restaurant chefs working voluntarily to feed front-line staff.
But, like many charities, the Trust is expecting a difficult time ahead with fundraising. It would usually have fundraising efforts during the summer and an appeal during the shooting season to fund food production during the winter months.
Ambassadors typically hold fundraising dinners and the future of events like these are currently unknown.
“Fundraising is going to be significantly more complex this winter,” adds Tim.
The Trust also has a large number of organisations which help fund its work and it relies on the generosity of individuals in the countryside too. Recently it has had support from and increasing number of people not connected to shooting donating to its Covid appeal in March.
Tim says: “It is staggering how many people there are in need in the rural areas too, but there are people in the country who care deeply about their county and in a position where they can help by donating money.”
With just two employees – Tim and his colleague Karen Everett who is head of operations – the Trust keeps its costs low. For every pound donated, 92 pence is spent on food. And it does not have to be particular people or groups that the Trust sets out to help, says Tim.
“We have absolutely no view on who we help – it is for anyone in need.
“We have fed the whole gamut of people from a charity that supports vicar’s widows to people coming out of prison to people leaving home for all sorts of reasons.”
However, in accordance with the charity’s lead policy, it doesn’t supply charities that specifically support children, pregnant women or women trying for a baby. The policy also states that the game meat used in the Trust’s ready meals is scanned for lead three times before it is supplied.
“There are a great many people who don’t have the funds for everything they need, says Tim.
“A lot of the people we are feeding are not on benefits. They may have a zero hours’ contract where they are earning, but not enough to do well.
“If we take the food problem away it’s one less thing.”
In the future Tim wants to explore the use of ‘incidental meats’ such as pigeons, rabbits, venison and geese and layer hens.
“There is huge scope to grow in this area,” he says.
“We don’t really celebrate numbers, but 1.5m is really huge for this charity.
“However, this country has a significant poverty problem which is only going to get worse.
“When we had produced 1m meals, I realised that with 8m people in food poverty, we had only fed an eighth of those people one meal for one day.
“Yes, I am very proud of what we have achieved but I don’t in any way feel we have made a huge difference just yet.”