When COVID-19 first swept Scotland in early 2020, like everywhere else, it left a wake of confusion and devastation. A nationwide lockdown put people out of work, creating and deepening pockets of vulnerability.
Edinburgh chef and gastronomy student Lewis MacLachlan watched in sorrow as the hospitality industry was hobbled overnight, putting thousands of people out of work. He was also painfully aware of the food waste that would be created with the sudden shuttering of restaurants. His trifecta of concern was complete when he realized that access to food would be needed—and restricted—more than ever.
Unable to stand by and watch a crisis unfold, in March 2020 he decided to create one solution to all three problems. After sourcing surplus food from hospitality companies that were abruptly shut down, he called a few out-of-work chef friends and they gathered to make soup to serve to people who needed a hot meal.
As word of mouth grew, their small endeavor became Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts (EKFH), a nonprofit organization that converts food donations into free breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and treats for anyone in need. They still offer a daily in-person hot meal service to about 150 clients, but community volunteers also package takeout meals into “day packs” and deliver them across Edinburgh.
By early December 2020, EKFH had served more than 360,000 meals and diverted 100 tons of food waste—all with no official government funding and run entirely by volunteers, donated food, and local fundraising.
Waste not, want not
Today, several major supermarkets regularly donate surplus food and mispackaged items that aren’t deemed sellable but aren’t inedible. Volunteer chefs are challenged to be creative with their culinary skills to use every last morsel.
“We have people who work all through the night to go to hundreds of stores and collect crates of cabbages or yogurts or anything they have that day. We have no control over what we’re given. Our chefs just have to go, ‘Okay, how can we put this to use?’” said Emma Poulton Parley, business and marketing director of EKFH.
In addition to providing nourishment for people who really need it, Poulton Parley said EKFH is also helping hospitality workers sharpen their skills and remain purposeful during mandated lockdowns.
“On top of living out our core values of rescuing food and serving others without judgment, we are creating a fantastic community for our volunteers,” said Poulton Parley. “Every day we’re seeing chefs come in to use skills and build their CV. And I, for one, can vouch for the lifeline that working with EKFH has provided me, giving me a much-needed sense of purpose and social connection.”
Every day we’re seeing chefs come in to use skills and build their CV. And I, for one, can vouch for the lifeline that working with EKFH has provided me, giving me a much-needed sense of purpose and social connection.
Powering up with Zendesk
EKFH’s dramatic growth during its first several months meant the organization needed an operational boost. Poulton Parley came onboard when the nonprofit had served 50,000 meals and quickly realized “it needed to be treated like a business.”
She immediately implemented platforms she used in her previous corporate work, including Zendesk. “It was clear that we needed a system for all of our external relationships and communications,” Poulton Parley said.
In her application for Zendesk’s Tech for Good program, Poulton Parley wrote, “Every week, hundreds of new clients, volunteers, and potential donors make initial contact with us, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to successfully manage our communications. My initial fantasy of introducing a ticketing system is now becoming business critical, but we simply do not have any budget for tech.”
“Before, we would get upwards of 100 emails a day to volunteers’ personal Gmail accounts. There were 10 to 15 admin people helping us, but no one ever really knew because it was a few hours here or there,” Poulton Parley said. “We wanted Zendesk to clearly track communications and document proper processes with notes, etc. Now we can have different volunteers coming in at different times and locations and know quickly where we are with communications and processes.”
Poulton Parley points to the Social Messaging add-on as being “life-changing.”
“We have a big social media presence now, including a lot of activity in our Facebook and Instagram inboxes from clients and volunteers,” she said. “It’s amazing to be able to run it through the Support function. It allows our clients to get in touch with us in whatever way is convenient for them and their request is processed immediately.”
With the right platform in place, EKFH is able to sustain and build on its constant growth. Poulton Parley says the nonprofit is on track to serve 1.5 million meals in 2021.
“There’s been a good 150,000 meals on the back of the support that Zendesk has given us,” Poulton Parley said. “These tools have worked out perfectly and we’re incredibly grateful to have them as we continue to grow.”