Backpackers Tokyo

Sinéad Browne … Compliments of the House provides nutritious food but also helps people to acquire skills and fulfil their potential. Show caption Sinéad Browne … Compliments of the House provides nutritious food but also helps people to acquire skills and fulfil their potential. Photograph: Ngadi Smart/The Guardian
The outspoken

After a childhood in care, Browne found herself at 16 with no money and often nothing to eat. But she defied expectations to become a lawyer and now runs her own venture to combat food poverty and waste

Sinéad Browne has always had a complicated relationship with food. At the age of 16, she was living in a BB in south London after leaving the care system, waiting for the jobcentre to process her benefits claim – which meant she had no money. Sometimes she managed to get by with the help of friends, but occasionally went days without anything to eat.

“The benefits I applied for didn’t come through for about eight weeks,” says Browne, 32. “During that time, I didn’t have a penny to my name, I didn’t have a social worker, I didn’t have anything. And I was hungry. It was terrifying.”

Browne would travel miles to friends’ houses for meals but was too embarrassed to confide in them. “I wouldn’t go more than a few times a week, as I didn’t want to be laughed at or for them to realise I was in need.” Things got so desperate that she considered shoplifting from a supermarket but instead told the security guard her plight. He took pity on her and gave her a lunchtime meal deal on offer in the store.

Browne was first placed in care when she was two because her family home was deemed unsafe. For 14 years, she moved between more than 15 different children’s homes and temporary foster placements until she was placed in the BB. After a few months, she was moved again, to a self-contained flat in a homeless hostel, where she studied for her GCSEs and A-levels. “It gave me a safe space and passing my A-levels meant that I could secure a scholarship to university,” she says.

She defied expectations by enrolling at the University of Surrey, where she graduated with a law degree. Higher education is unusual among care leavers: a study conducted by the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford found that only 13% of care-leavers in England had entered higher education, compared with 49% of the general population. In 2019, the Centre for Social Justice think-tank found that care-leavers in the UK are “more likely to end up in a prison cell than a lecture theatre”.

In her 20s, Browne could afford food but regularly deprived herself because she had developed bulimia and body dysmorphia. At 24, she was referred to an eating disorder unit daycare centre because her weight was so low. She now manages her illness, but says she will never fully recover. “You are always in recovery, even if the disordered eating behaviour isn’t active. You often have the thoughts. You find healthier coping mechanisms but, in times of extreme stress, I still have relapses.”

Browne already had an interest in sustainability and food waste, but it was only after a backpacking trip around New Zealand, aged 27, that she decided to give up her career as a solicitor to tackle food poverty and waste in her south London community full-time. During her travels, a backpacker friend brought “some amazing food” back to their youth hostel. Knowing he had very little money, she asked where he had got it and discovered he had been to Free Store, a food redistribution charity in Wellington. Browne was so impressed with the charity that she volunteered. She knew that if she had been able to go somewhere like Free Store when she couldn’t afford food, she wouldn’t have had to go hungry.

In 2017, after returning from New Zealand, Browne started Compliments of The House – the name is deliberately chosen to remove the stigma from food aid, the idea being that the food is to be enjoyed in a welcoming communal space. The charity is funded by donations from the public, corporate donors, trusts and grants, and operates according to the same model as Free Store, offering surplus food from commercial eateries to people in need. It has helped more than 1,000 people since June last year.

Charities such as Free Store and Compliments of The House are very much in demand. According to the international charity Action Against Hunger, more than 810 million people in the world experience hunger every day, yet 900m tonnes of food is wasted annually – a third of total global food. According to the United Nations, the production and rotting of this food also leaves behind a carbon footprint so large it is only topped by those of the US and China.

In the UK, 9.5m tonnes of food is wasted each year. Most comes from households, while 500,000 tonnes is left uneaten in restaurants, pubs, fast food outlets, hotels and other outlets. That is equivalent to more than 1bn meals. Lockdown saw a reduction in food waste as restaurants closed and households had time to plan meals and preserve food in bulk, but it has started to rise again.

In 2020, the issue of food poverty was highlighted by the Manchester United footballer, Marcus Rashford MBE, who embarrassed the government into a series of U-turns over the extension of free school meals. A leading food bank charity, the Trussell Trust, said it distributed a record 2.5m food parcels during the first year of the pandemic, while other charities, schools and councils also handed out an unprecedented amount of food aid. The Food Foundation reported that, by January last year, 9% of the population had experienced food insecurity – defined as skipping meals, going hungry or not eating for a whole day.

Marcus Rashford, footballer and campaigner for free school meals. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

“People like Marcus Rashford and the Trussell Trust have done an amazing job of highlighting the issue of hidden hunger,” says Browne. “I think the pandemic, in a short space of time, created a microcosm of people who became dependent [on food charities] because of a change in circumstances.”

Browne believes the pandemic also showed that food poverty can happen to anyone, including people from better-off backgrounds. Compliments of The House has welcomed a number of freelance workers and self-employed people who had difficulty getting government grants at the height of the pandemic, as well as homeowners struggling to pay the mortgage after losing their jobs.

Browne’s charity differs from some traditional food banks in several ways. Service users are known as guests, and the principle behind it is to offer a hand-up – not handouts. Guests are not required to jump through bureaucratic hoops to prove need, there are no humiliating queues or invasive questionnaires and the food is all nutritious (they also cater for a range of dietary requirements).

Typically, service users at food banks are given canned goods, dried pasta, rice and cereals because they are relatively cheap and have a long shelf-life; these are also the items most people donate. However, as Browne knows from experience, homeless people and those with precarious living arrangements do not necessarily have access to cooking facilities.

“In my BB, there was no microwave. No kettle. Nothing. I could never cook for myself. Something like Compliments of The House would have been a lifesaver for me.” She also points out that people with learning difficulties or physical disabilities may struggle to cook without support. “At Compliments of The House, they get food that is already prepared and would otherwise go to waste.”

Guests are invited to eat on-site at the hub and enjoy the “restaurant experience”, or take their meals home. All the food at the hub comes from well-known chain restaurants such as Franco Manca and Honest Burger, or takeaways spots, such as Greggs. There is also surplus food from Brixton market.

“We collect from 40 different places and put the food out on shelves,” says Browne. There are three shelves at the hub: starters on the top, main courses in the middle and desserts at the bottom. “Guests are allowed to pick three [items] from the top shelf, two or four from the middle shelf, then from the bottom.”

Lockdown meant that Compliments of The House was forced to close its communal hub, while many of the outlets that donated food had to close, too. “As a small, grassroots charity, we haven’t been able to afford commercial rent, which has left us vulnerable to landlords’ whims,” says Browne.

They changed the nature of the operation, moving from a restaurant experience to a delivery service. The team occupied a community centre, packing and delivering food sourced from cafes and supermarkets and Browne’s efforts earned her a Points of Light award from Downing Street.

Before the Brixton hub was closed, Compliments of The House also helped guests to find pathways into employment with its Back to Work scheme. Guests were trained at the charity’s office in basic administration skills andcould also volunteer at the hub itself, gaining experience in hospitality. “Eventually, we trained them to a level where they could run the hub as a manager. We provided them with their level 2 food safety training, which meant that, after three months, we could present them to one of the businesses who had agreed to be part of our Back to Work scheme,” says Browne.

Although she is supported by conscientious staff, the organisation devours almost all her time. But it is worth it, she says: “I’ve had such a varied relationship with food that it’s always beautiful now that I can make sure food doesn’t go to waste.”

Browne is about to open a new hub in Brixton and plans additional hubs in Hackney and Leeds this year. Then she hopes to approach life at a steadier pace, and dreams of eventually moving to the countryside to grow vegetables and rescue animals. She has taken on a position as youth ambassador with a fostering agency, and would like to foster children with her partner one day. “Growing up in the care system, I was moved around so much – there was a lot of instability,” she says. “It meant I couldn’t have a family. Now, fostering children is one of my biggest goals.”

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