A sustainable student social enterprise
In Bristol, university students set up FoodCycle to provide free meals to the community from food that other people threw away
University is the perfect place to set up a social enterprise. There are hordes of students willing to put in hard graft, full of ambition and bright ideas. There are also plenty of people to get advice and support from – whether it’s the enterprise support team, someone from careers, your friendly lecturer, someone on the university sabbatical team … there’s lots of people willing to help.
FoodCycle Bristol was set up in September 2009. My friend Max had heard about a new project, FoodCycle in London, where surplus food was being collected and taken to a centre to be made into delicious free meals. Knowing the amount of food that gets wasted in Bristol, he recruited a team of motivated and enthusiastic students to start a local project.
When recruiting students, I’d recommend you take a professional approach: always conduct interviews. This sets the tone for the rest of the project. You want people to know that you mean business! Having a really clear vision and strategy is invaluable; people know what they’re getting involved with; a simple and exciting idea really lends itself to mobilisation. We have always conducted things in a democratic and empowering way so that managers of the project have ownership and are thus more dedicated.
In the early stages we did a lot of community outreach to identify potential suppliers and demand. We found partners as well as local shops and supermarkets to provide surplus food. Local organisations are often happy to give advice and support, and this can be really beneficial, especially in the early stages. We did launch events and volunteer fairs to raise awareness and recruit volunteers. We also sought out free training opportunities – universities often run speaker events and clinics covering different business skills; these can be really useful.
We raised the capital we needed to buy equipment and other resources by securing a loan from FoodCycle London – with which we have stayed in contact whilst remaining autonomous and developing quite a different social enterprise model – combined with a start-up grant from Bristol University. There are plenty of places to look for grants and low-rate loans. Your university is a great place to start and UnLtd provides grants for social entrepreneurs. Don’t forget, either, that students are often willing to part with cash in exchange for something fun.
By spring 2010, the community kitchen was up and running at the nearby Easton Community Centre, serving free three-course meals to an average of 50 beneficiaries every Sunday. However, we were keen that the project should be self-sustaining and, from this, the idea to run a pop-up student restaurant was born. Again, meals would be made out of waste food but this time we charged £3. The pop-up restaurant started up in autumn 2010 and has since become well established, running fortnightly and feeding 120 students.
The restaurant has grown into a platform for ethical and environmental societies to host talks and events and to share ideas. As well as raising essential funds, it sets out to make the issue of food waste and other good causes interesting, fun and engaging, to get students involved in positive actions and more ethical daily choices.
Something which stemmed from the restaurant was the idea to get renowned chefs involved – our Chefs Against Food Waste Campaign. The chefs are challenged to make a high quality dinner out of food that would have otherwise be wasted. We charge more for these special events, thereby raising more money. These chefs then act as FoodCycle ambassadors, sharing our concerns about food waste with the wider community.
We’ve recently branched out into running workshops at local schools to help raise awareness among the next generation of food waste and food poverty. We are also working with local residents to develop an overgrown space behind Easton Community Centre into an attractive and practical garden, which we plan to use in the future to run workshops on foodwaste and composting.
We wanted to make FoodCycle Bristol more financially self-reliant this year, so I developed ZeroCarbon Catering for events and businesses on a budget. This has proven to be very popular, and we recently catered for the Bristol International Development Conference.
How to set up a student social enterprise
• Make sure you do your homework. Does the business plan add up? Does your idea have a unique selling point? Is there a strategic plan for the future? These issues may seem like unnecessary faff but they’re vital, especially if you want to avoid wasting time further down the line. We spent a good few months researching to ensure there was demand for our service along with drawing up a constitution and clear mission. We also put a strong focus on continual recruitment to ensure that, even as people graduate, there is always a strong group leading the project.
• Get out and network. Creating partnerships, both with groups in the university and in the wider community, is very useful for developing ideas and getting support. We’ve collaborated with more than 17 different societies at the university; this has drawn in people from different areas and helped us create varied and interesting events. We have also built relationships with several external organisations, such as Bristol Refugee Rights, Coexist, and the Avon Organic Group. The sharing of best practice, resources and co-promotion of our events has been mutually beneficial.
• Ask around to see what support is available for start-ups at your university. Many offer funding, mentoring, clinics, training and lots of other invaluable free support. At Bristol, you can apply for low-rate loans and there are mentoring opportunities, along with business skills talks, to provide you with practical information.
• Make sure you’ve got a strong team of people behind you who share your passion and vision. For me, this is the most important thing – there’s no way we would be where we are today without such a great team of people. Make time to get to know one another and make it fun. We limit meetings to no longer than an hour and have regular visioning sessions, separate from the weekly ticking over, where we can focus on how we are progressing and brainstorm ideas for the future. We regularly go for drinks together and have Bring a Dish nights – highly recommended, especially when you have talented cooks in your team.
Amy Hale is a student enterprise consultant at the University of Bristol.
Source: Guardian Professional 16/05/12go back to the news page