News and Media

Interview with our CEO, Yvonne Thomson

Right Yvonne, put down the phone for a minute and tell us what you’re doing right now

YT – Right now it's 7.30am and I’m on a train travelling from Chichester to London, catching up on emails and trying to have a phone call with one of our Trustees about the new vans – which keeps cutting out (South West Trains at their best) before a day of meetings:

  • 10am - with the wonderful man responsible for global food standards, Daniel Nowlands in the commercial team at Jamie Oliver
  • 11am - a catch up with Gail Gallie CEO of JOFF
  • 12.30am - quick chats with colleagues at JOFF regarding CEO Cook Off
  • 1.30pm - meeting with James, Charles and Kate at Goodman - our founding sponsor
  • 3.00pm - catch up with the Chair of my Trustee Board
  • 4.00pm - meeting with the CEO of Fareshare - Lindsay Boswell
  • 5.00pm - meeting with our lovely Georgie, our operations and programmes manager
  • 6.00 - 7.00pm - grab the train home. 

I should arrive home around 9 or 10pm after a very rewarding and productive day! 

I also volunteer as the vice chair of a charity who supports rough sleepers, part of a community interest company Homes For Good in Glasgow and as a school governor.  As the saying says “if you want something done, give it to a busy person” (laughing)

Right, I think we need to backtrack.  Tell us what UKHarvest is all about?

YT – Our mission is to Nourish our Nation.  That’s not just about rescuing good food from going to landfill but educating everyone – right across the food supply chain, including consumers, who waste an average of between £400 and £700 each year on throwing out food.  That’s got to stop, that could go a long way to preventing food poverty and providing more income for our most deprived families.   We will use refrigerated vans to collect and deliver food from donors straight to charities.  We won’t charge anyone for this service, but that’s just the start of the journey -education is the answer and only through education can we change the excess waste of good food whilst tackling food poverty.  It’s a food revolution and we are incredibly lucky to be a part of that. 

So getting this off the ground isn’t easy?!

YT – There is just so much to do, I’m dashing from pillar to post most days and find solace working in the House Of St Barnabus (the oldest charity in London), where I do most of my work and meetings in London.  This is the first charitable venture I’ve started and I’ve learnt so much along the way.  It has been challenging but I do love a challenge.   It’s not easy but nothing good ever is - is it? The outcomes will be incredible and making that concrete difference to the lives of those most vulnerable in our society will make it all work while.

And how does it actually work? You’re not just driving around knocking on people’s doors asking for half a loaf of bread or something are you??

YT – We contact donors ranging from supermarkets and deli’s to sandwich shops, restaurants etc.  We take the good food which they would throw out and give it to charities.  Charities are asked if they would like food and their premises inspected to ensure that they can appropriately store and process the food.  It’s like being a dating service - match making between those who have excess food and those who need it. That way the charities can spend their funds on delivering much needed services and not on buying lots of food, as we can supplement it. 

Some stuff like this already exists in the UK, right?  So what are UKH doing that’s different or how are you working with organisations already doing some of this?

YT – UKHarvest genuinely want to work collaboratively with others in the food waste space.  We want to add value to what is already there.  We want to work in alliance with partners and are actively seeking partners to work with.  Food rescue is really only a sticking plaster on the issues we face.  There is food excess right next to food poverty.  This is a first world country and there shouldn’t be malnutrition and hunger. Education is the answer.  I firmly believe that.  With my background in community education I know that the only way to affect sustainable change is through an incremental approach and lifelong learning. UKHarvest has that education piece at our heart – it runs through everything we do, right from our corporate partners, volunteers and consumers right to the work we will do on our NEST (nice, easy, simple tips) programme with vulnerable people. 

So who are you, and why are you doing this?

YT – (laughs) I’m a Scottish girl who has worked her whole life trying to give those with no opportunity or choice a voice.  It’s that simple.  I’ve worked in housing, regeneration, planning policy, the arts and as a consultant.  There’s an intrinsic link between life chances, including the chances of experience of homelessness and food poverty and I want to break that cycle.  When I was a student I worked in a centre in Drumchapel, a peripheral estate in Glasgow. My work focused on vulnerable women, but I also worked with children and young people at a breakfast club and after school club.  Those children were dependent on the free school meal they got each day as it was the only meal many of them got.  It’s two decades later and it’s still true today.   

The reason I’m doing this is to ensure we fight food poverty and educate ourselves on how to consume more responsibly.  We can’t continue to dump all this good food in landfill and we must focus on how to give our children the best chance in life, whilst looking after the planet.  Good nutritional education is a great place to start.  I must say that it’s such a pleasure to be working with the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation on tacking these issues, around our CEO Cookoff in March especially.  

And what’s the end goal of UKHarvest, what are you really trying to do?

YT – We are trying to put ourselves out of business.  If those in the supply chain can waste less food and so can consumers then here will be no need for UKHarvest.  I know I keep banging on about it but education really is the answer. 

So how can people help put you out of business?

YT – If those who have food to donate can donate it to us and let us give it to charities, supporting their business models, then that’s a start.  It’s our intention to work with everyone across the supply chain in time and fill apparent gaps in the market. 

We will work with anyone and want to work with volunteers to give them the opportunity to give something back, I know that sounds really cheesy but I mean it, that includes corporate volunteering too.

We will start working on our corporate programmes in March and want to roll out our first ever NEST programme in June.  It’s incredibly humbling to know that we can change the lives of everyone we work with for the better.  If we can tackle food waste surely we can tackle homelessness, but that’s another subject - how long have you got?