If you had to cater for a gathering of five thousand people you’d be forgiven for having a bit of a panic. How much food should we get? How hungry are our guests going to be? How much choice should we provide? Which drinks should we offer? Do we need to accommodate for babies? How many vegetarians will there be? One hundred? One thousand? Do we have a gluten-free option?
One question that might not come to mind is; what do we do if there’s loads left over?
You might recall that Jesus was once tasked with catering for five thousand people. The story is told in John 6. Now Jesus didn’t seem too burdened by such questions listed above. Sure he asked ‘Where shall we buy bread for all these people?’, but the narrator tells us he had a catering plan up his sleeve all along. With a remarkable sense of calm and a twinkle in his eye, he somehow managed to feed all those people with five small barley loaves and two small fish. But his role as ‘host with the most’ didn’t end there. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” We don’t know what Jesus did with those left-overs, but presumably he didn’t gather them up just to put them in a Galilee Borough Council wheelie bin. Jesus was conscious not only of feeding the thousands of hungry people before him, but of making the most of the resources available, of respecting the good gifts God had provided for them.
As Jesus shows, there is nothing wrong with having extra food, especially if you’re catering in huge quantities. But it is worth - in fact, it is righteous - to bear in mind what you will do if you have any left over. We have a duty to feed the hungry, but also a duty to honour the good gifts God gives to us.
With this in mind, I recently approached the manager of my local market, Broadway Market in Hackney, to ask if his traders often have extra food that they throw away at the end of a trading day, and if so, would they like to donate it to charity. Response was affirmative. The next week, I went round the market with him, and asked the traders directly if they’d like to donate any surplus food they had. Their reactions were unanimously positive, some even saying ‘we’ve been desperate to find something like this - we hate throwing our food away!’ And so, last Saturday, we commenced the first Broadway Market surplus food collection.
Almost 50kg of sandwiches, pizza slices, loaves of bread, slices of cake, and bagels, all of which would have been thrown away, were donated. But the best bit was delivering all this food to the local shelter, the Hackney Road Project. News of the food’s arrival spread like butter on toast, and immediately the reception area was full of residents excited to collect all the goodies on offer. It was like Christmas, as they gratefully filled bags with food that would nourish them for the next few days.
I’m not going to say that delivering free food to the needy is a silver bullet in the duel against food poverty. The reality of growing inequality and poverty needs thorough and comprehensive political and social action to relieve. However, for as long as food is being thrown away at markets like Broadway, and people live in shelters round the corner, there are small actions we can take to see food do its job - to fill bellies, not bin bags.
My friends Bob and Helen got married in December. Not only was I delighted to attend their wedding ceremony, but was also honoured to be tasked with the job of making sure that any food that was left over was eventually eaten and not thrown away. It was Helen’s decision to commission me as official Food-Recycler, and I hope that that role becomes more and more common at weddings and public events. Granted it meant I simply ate a lot of cake, but if Jesus was there at the wedding too, he’d be saying ‘gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted’.