An interview with a volunteer Foodsaver
Today’s post is related not only to ecology/sustainable living, but also social responsibility and supporting local communities. It is an interview with Mateusz Baniak – a linguistics student at the University of Warsaw who, in his free time, acts as a volunteer Foodsaver with the Foodsharing movement.
Although I have already written about how Foodsharing works in Poland, this time I would like to present it from a perspective of a specific person actively involved in fighting food waste. The movement is definitely growing in Poland and every now and then we can hear about a new Foodsharing point being open in a Polish town or city. This would be impossible without the hard work of a number of volunteers. Their role is crucial for the existence of the movement and still there is very little media coverage focusing on specific people involved in this initiative on a daily basis. This is why I decided to speak to one of them and find out how a Foodsaver’s work looks like exactly, what their motivation is and how much of their free time they dedicate to this cause.
I’m very glad to have spoken Mateusz and I hope that in the future I will have a chance to interview more people like him – energetic, passionate about a cause and with a sense of responsibility for solving social problems. Promoting such people makes much more sense to me than following the life of today’s celebrities, whose actions (or maybe the lack of those) don’t bring any value to the world. If you agree with me and you would like to find out how a Foodsaver’s life looks like, I encourage you to read my interview with Mateusz.
Make It A Better Place: How long have you been involved in volunteering with Foodsharing?
Mateusz Baniak: I have been an active Foodsaver for about one year. I got involved in this activity after returning to Poland from a student exchange in Finland. Together with a friend of mine, we decided to get involved in some kind of volunteering. We were a bit tired with the purely academic side of studying – we wanted to finally do something meaningful, to start acting. At this point, I had already some vague idea about Foodsharing, as I attended classes at the Faculty of Psychology where the first Polish Foodsharing point is located. And so we started attending informational meetings for Foodsavers. At first, we only listened to what was being said at the meetings, learnt about the movement, absorbed new information. After some time, we felt confident enough to become active Foodsavers.
How many active Foodsavers are there currently? How does their work look like exactly?
Currently there are 42 active Foodsavers in Warsaw. Our main task is to regularly pick up unsold surplus food from businesses that have agreed to cooperate with us. They are mainly bakeries, cafés, small restaurants. We don’t really have a possibility to work with big coffeehouse chains and the likes because it’s much more complicated from a legal point of view. Then, we deliver the rescued food to a Foodsharing point, we distribute it among our friends or take it home with us. All depends to the location and the amount of food to be collected. If we pick up for example 15 kilos of bread from a place, then of course we have to distribute it or leave at a Foodsharing point. However, if on a given day we collect only two sandwiches for instance, then the best solution is to simply take them home, if there is no Foodsharing point around. We have to think ecologically and economically. There is no point in using time, energy and petrol to deliver two sandwiches to a distant Foodsharing point. After all, the most important thing for us is to save the food from being thrown away – ultimately, it does not matter that much who will eat it.
What else do you do on top of collecting surplus food from businesses?
It depends to the person really. Some people have some additional roles – for example, I am in charge of recruiting and onboarding new Foodsavers. Occasionally, I also look after our weekly food collection schedule as well as our shared mailbox and Facebook page.
Besides, the most active people are also present in the media, they give interviews and lectures, teach workshops. For example, I spoke at the opening of a new Foodsharing point at the Community Centre Paca 40. I also had a chance to take part in a radio debate, alongside the girls from Polish food banks.
Moreover, we also proactively look for more businesses that could be interested in cooperating with us. We visit them, ask if they produce some surplus food and encourage them to regular foodsharing.
Does this kind of activity require from you to overcome a psychological bareer? After all, you have to visit places and ask them for what they consider as leftovers. Doesn’t it feel a bit uncomfortable for you?
Indeed, it can be a bit overwhelming. Of course, we often receive positive and enthusiastic reactions, but sometimes also mistrust and misunderstanding of our intentions. Sometimes we are mistaken for a charity bringing help to the poor. The Polish word “jadłodzielnia”- which is how we call our Foodsharing points – is very similar to “jadłodajnia” which most frequently is associated with a canteen for the homeless. People often don’t understand that the food rescued does not necessarily need to be given to the poor. Yes, Foodsharing often is a form of providing a discreet support to the unwealthy people, but this is certainly not our main goal. Above all, we want to prevent food from landing in a bin and to reduce the problem of waste. Who exactly will eat the rescued surplus food is a thing of second importance to us.
I suppose that most people think this is a form of bringing help to the poor because they can’t imagine how someone who can „afford” to buy their own food could be interested in receiving some for free. For many people it would be embarrassing. In our society showing that you can afford to buy, to consume is still very important. It is in a way a sign of social status. We are a society that until not such a long time ago was quite poor. So now – if you are not poor, you buy. If you can’t afford to buy – you can ask for surplus from other people, be it food, clothes or other things. I believe this is what most people think.
Exactly, but people really shouldn’t think this way. After all, the food that we rescue is completely fine. The only problem with it is that there is a surplus of it. If it is there – why shouldn’t we use it? Northern European societies don’t have problems with it. On one hand, most people in Finland can afford to buy a sandwich from a posh coffeeshop chain, on the other – they don’t feel embarrassed to take some leftover food that stays after a conference they participated it. They don’t think that much about what other people say.
How much time do you need to dedicate to foodsaving on a weekly basis?
What is cool about Foodsharing is that we are very flexible about working time. People dedicate as much time as they want and can. There are people who pick up surplus food once per week, but also those who do it 2 or 3 times per day. This is their choice only. Every week we prepare a schedule, everyone signs up for a task, we try not to have any gaps. On average, a food collection trip takes from 30 minutes up to one hour. It all depends to how much food we pick up and where we want to deliver it.
What is the background of Warsaw Foodsavers? From which age and professional groups do they come?
We come from very different backgrounds. Many of us are students, but there are also people professionally active. There are for instance people working in the field of gastronomy. There are also unemployed people working with us – and this is what I find really brilliant. Why? Because for the unemployed, acting as volunteer Foodsavers is a way to detach themselves from the problems of their everyday life. Long-term unemployment is a very complex and multilevel problem. Very often people who are unemployed consider themselves as not good enough. By getting involved in Foodsharing, they can go out, meet other people, direct their minds toward other things and act towards a cause that is important for the whole society.
As Foodsavers, you work above all for the common good, for the society, for the planet. But is this activity in any way beneficial for you as a person?
Definitely yes, for many different reasons. First of all, I have the access to free bread, pastry and other goods.
Second, I have got to know so many great people that I would otherwise never have met in other circumstances. I’m very happy to have met all these like-minded people who share with me the most important values. We meet on a regular basis to spend some time together. Last week, for example, we were all invited to a house party by one of the new Foodsavers. The atmosphere was really great, it was such a nice meeting.
Last but not least, volunteering with Foodsharing helps to develop many different skills – good organisation, logistics, getting in touch with „business partners”, cooperation with other people, activity in the media, public speaking. Some time ago, my presenting skills were very poor. Now when I have to give an interview or speak in front of a bigger audience – it is no longer as stressful as it used to be. I have never thought I would be able to develop such skills and to be active in so many different fields. I never expected I would ever have a chance to speak on a radio for instance.
I have the impression that in Poland we still underestimate volunteering as a form of learning and developing new skills.
I absolutely agree, in the very same way as we are suspicious towards the so-called gap year. In Poland all sorts of activities that don’t give you a certificate or don’t generate revenue are often considered as a loss of time. Meantime, in Western countries people who take initiative, go abroad, learn new skills in other ways than the traditional ones (for example, by working for some time at an organic farm) are highly valued. I hope that in our country we will gradually move away from perceiving certificates and diplomas as an ultimate proof of knowledge. These are important, of course, but there are also alternative ways of developing good skills and those should not be underestimated.
Working with Foodsharing is not volunteering in technical terms as we are not a charity or an organisation, but a social movement. However, in practice, we are volunteers because we offer our free time to work for the community, without being paid for it. And I can definitely say that this activity helps shaping certain attitudes and develop skills that can certainly be applied in other fields and areas – also in business.
Foodsharing has been here for quite a while now. Since the movement started in Poland, have you noticed any improvement in the way our society approaches the question of food waste?
Absolutely! Here is one good example. A few businesses we used to cooperate with, have decided to end our partnership. Why is this a good news? These businesses took this decision because, thanks to working with us, they have become more conscious and have learnt how to more effectively manage their food. Some time ago we regularly picked up surplus soup from a nursery school. After some time, the people managing the kitchen in this institution realized that they regularly produced surpluses and decided to cook smaller amounts. They learnt how to better manage their resources.
There is certainly no organisation or social movement that are absolutely perfect. When you look at the way Polish Foodsharing works, can you see any areas for improvement?
From my point of view, it would be great if my role of the person onboarding and recruiting new people, as well as coordination of the weekly schedule by volunteers could be eliminated by using new technologies. All these tasks are very time-consuming and while working on them, we have less time for food collection. Currently, we are testing a few different mobile apps that could potentially make our lives easier. It seems that one of them responds to our needs so there are chances we will be able to implement some changes in the nearest future.
Other than that, it would be great if our society developed a better understanding of the foodsharing idea. I wish more people understood what our goal is and did not hesitate to join us in our efforts, be it by sharing their surplus food, becoming Foodsavers or using the existing Foodsharing points.
Of course, the ideal situation would be the one where Foodsharing and Foodsaving would not be needed at all – because the problem would be solved at an earlier stage, by better managing resources. But we still have a lot of work to do before we achieve this level.