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The phone call that fed thousands

The phone call that fed thousands

Fighting food waste and hunger in the UK

Ahead of World Food Day on 16 October 2018, Natalie Lek, a mentor on the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme, tells Leading Change about the extraordinary impact of one small charitable act.

Five months ago, Natalie Lek phoned a bakery chain in her local community to ask what happened to their unsold food each day. Within weeks she was distributing thousands of meals from her two-bedroom flat in Greater Manchester, UK – food that would otherwise have been thrown away.

Her beneficiaries include homeless people, low income families, the elderly, food charities, schools and others in need.

The Launch Project logo - a rocket taking off

Natalie has since formed partnerships with food retailers, manages an army of volunteers, collaborates with charities and has enlisted the help of local businesses. This rapid scale up is being accommodated by recently donated office space from one of the homeless shelters she delivers to, as well as a kitchen with six ovens and large refrigerators.

Natalie’s ‘Launch Project’ now provides 3,500 meal packs each week – meals that were not available in her community until her spur of the moment phone call made it possible.

She is also setting up a food bank at the shelter and next year plans to open a food pantry to recycle unsold food. 

Her journey shows how a single action combined with proactivity can impact the lives of hundreds.

“You don’t always need money to make a difference”, says Natalie. “You just need to see an opportunity where there is a need.”

Our actions are our future

One in nine people or 821 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment, according to a recent UN report. The UN’s World Food Day is a chance to promote worldwide awareness of the basic human right of food.


Women farming in Senegal

Women farming in Senegal. Image credit: Benedicte Kurzen, of the Noor Foundation for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO)

A third of the food we grow and process to feed people never reaches our plates. While in developing countries, waste occurs during production processes, in wealthy countries waste is mostly driven by retailers and consumers. Food is thrown away because people have either purchased too much or it does not meet aesthetic standards.

To achieve the globally-agreed goal of Zero Hunger by 2030 (SDG2), this year’s World Food Day slogan is, “Our actions are our future”.

It aims to encourage people to work more closely together, globally and locally, to improve everyone’s opportunities to live healthy, productive lives.

Making change

sandwiches with Launch Project logo

Natalie’s Launch Project distributes unsold food, like these packs of sandwiches, to those in need

Natalie’s initial decision to “make that call to change” sprung from a desire to support lonely or vulnerable people at Christmas. In 2017, her 1,000 free Christmas dinners gained notoriety in Greater Manchester.

She uses its success as leverage in her work today, asking the businesses she approaches if they have heard about the mum who made 1,000 Christmas dinners? When they say yes, she responds “You’re talking to her. Now I’ve got your attention, how can we work together?”

Networking and scaling

Natalie credits being cheeky as integral to her success. Her top tips for networking and scaling are:

  • Have confidence, there is only one ‘you’.
  • Be happy, don’t stop smiling when you take, be cheeky by asking for things.
  • Promote every business that helps you actively by asking how you can help them.
  • Understand you are not superhuman, to scale up means to scale out.
  • Let others help you. Do not be the only person who can do what you do. Teach and empower others and they will support you.

Unsold food in Natalie Lek's flat

 Unsold food in Natalie's flat, waiting for redistribution

The power of online

Social media and the internet are fundamental in spreading Natalie’s message – enabling her to recruit volunteers, approach businesses, research opportunities and mobilise support.

She uses the platforms tactically, by:

  • engaging influential people
  • posting candid appeals for help
  • and employing the use of emotive hashtags for traction, such as #timelessness, #charity, #femaleentrepreneur, #wastage.

Advice from a mentor

As a mentor for the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme, Natalie is committed to offering advice and experience to those keen to start or grow social enterprises.

  • Don’t quit and have confidence. Look for ways to work with people who share your passion.
  • Be resourceful, think outside the box. If it was easy everyone would do it. Believe in yourself and others will too.Never stop talking about what you want to do. Learn to time manage and know what is achievable in the time frames you have.
  • Fear is good, embrace it and know that you feel fear because you are outside your comfort zone and making changes to your life.
  • Realise when you start making changes in the community there will be people who will be negative about you and what you are trying to do. It’s human nature, we don’t like change. Just know that change is good, if it is positive.
  • Don’t forget to make sure you have an income and importantly, time for yourself. It won’t work if you are working for the benefit of others while not looking after yourself.

Natalie’s story inspires in its ability to instigate positive and much-needed change to a community. However, it also gives an alarming insight into the high levels of UK food wastage and just how far we need to go before our reality can be zero-waste.