Serving in all senses: Project SOUP President Maddy Diment on promoting social action one bowl at a time

Current Affairs In Conversation

Image Credit:Maddy Diment

The concept underlying Project SOUP seems befittingly appetising, channeling the problem of food waste in urban locales into a community dinner that, in turn, supports local charities. It is even intelligently named, with its titular dish also reading as an acronym for Support Oxford’s Upcoming Projects. When I meet Maddy, Project SOUP’s current president, even the weather is symbolically cold and soup-appropriate. Crisis Café, the site of their next event, is mere doors away, and the sight of food waste bursting from nearby bins is yet a louder call for this conversation to be had. 

How did you get involved in Project SOUP?

It was a bit bizarre – I went along to an event Project SOUP were hosting in Michaelmas last year and they were advertising for volunteers, and I had literally two hours free. Then the committee, who were third-years and PhD students, mentioned they needed to hand over, and that they’d see us next week! I went to the handover meeting, which was actually a couple of weeks after, and it was only me and another girl that turned up. So I was looking at Katie, who’s our current Volunteers Coordinator, and was thinking “This is kind of crazy – we’ve literally just stepped into this.”

What did your involvement look like then, and how has your role changed?

In Michaelmas of last year, I literally turned up, was chopping some vegetables in the kitchen and topping up water on tables. Now, I’m coordinating a committee of six people including myself, organising new venues, doing outreach. On a day to day basis, I’m looking after the committee, communicating with charities around Oxford and getting them to come along to our events. I’m currently president of Project SOUP – I’ve actually delegated quite a bit of responsibility between the teams, so it means that we’re all doing a manageable amount. The first event that Katie and I organised was quite overwhelming – we had less support than we do now.

So what explains the rapid increase in interest in Project SOUP?

I went on BBC Oxford last term and spoke on the radio for about five or ten minutes. That was huge – after that, we had an influx of emails from the public asking if they could come along. That was really nice – the whole point of Project SOUP is to connect students with the wider community, because there’s this whole ‘town-versus-gown divide’ that I feel quite strongly about that it shouldn’t exist. 

The BBC Oxford interview was after a successful event you hosted. Could you tell me more about it?

It was crazy – we did our usual thing by putting the event on Facebook and waiting for people to press ‘going’ or ‘interested’. Before we knew it, it had reached 12,000 people. We normally host our events at Turl Street Kitchen – if you’ve ever been, it’s quite a small space! On the night itself, we had 70 to 80 people, which meant we had the room on the right-hand side, and had to open up the room on the left-hand side, which we’d never done before. So it was almost a bit of crowd controlling – and we raised over £340. It was so overwhelming – people were stood up at the back because they couldn’t get seats and it was that whole atmosphere I’d dreamed of, with a real community feel. It just felt like what it’s supposed to be. We ask for feedback afterwards just to gauge how the public are responding to us and our volunteers, and we take a lot of that on board for our future events.

What’s the next event?

Based on the feedback we received, we’re going to continue doing themed events. Previously, Project SOUP would gather a random, eclectic group of charities to come and pitch at dinner. We want to target our audience better – it worked well for the refugee-focussed event we had in Trinity and we’re going to do homelessness this term. It’s at Crisis Café, whose whole ethos is about helping the homeless community there, which is absolutely ideal. It’ll be £5 on the door per person – come along for literally unlimited food, all made from surplus ingredients sourced from the Oxford Food Bank. There’ll be soup, there’ll be bread, and then everyone will vote for which charity they will personally pledge to support. So that’s the brief – Crisis, 7pm, Saturday 3rd November!

How are the recipient charities decided on?

Often we go to the Oxford Hub, and we ask if they’d recommend any organisations in the area. They’ll give us three or four action groups to contact, and we’ll often look outside this and personally reach out to other places. We try and keep them local as well.

How far do initiatives like this impactfully approach Oxford’s social issues?

It comes back to that idea of effective altruism versus personal volunteering commitment. While we’ll never claim that our one event will solve the homelessness problem in Oxford, we will try and inspire students to take action for themselves. They’ll go along, listen to someone speak about why it’s important and then see what options and volunteering opportunities they can get involved with. So we’re kind of connecting the problem with the solution, in that students will go “Oh, I really enjoyed what that charity has to say: I’m going to contact them and volunteer with them”, which has happened.

How do you source the food for your events?

We have a great relationship with the Oxford Food Bank, who reliably give us so much surplus fruit, vegetables, cakes and bread and whatever else they’ve got. We go up there on the day of the event – we take a taxi there and a bootful home of so many tomatoes, or peppers, and try and think of a soup that will match our ingredients. It’s quite random and quite exciting. It’s basically a warehouse of bits and bobs that food retailers have overordered and relocated. 

Have there been any particularly memorable moments you’ve experienced during these events, or in the lead-up to them?

That’s so difficult, because every event is different and will bring different challenges with it! This is quite a personal one – I’ve struggled with doing public speaking and for a long time I lost my confidence and found it very difficult to speak in front of a small-ish group of people in a formal setting. But there was a moment where I stood up and spoke, and was self-assured and confident in that I knew what I was doing – I was able to relax and enjoy the evening.

What have Project SOUP’s most recent funds gone towards?

The funds that made the most difference were to an organisation that aims to give refugees and asylum seekers in Oxford a voice, and means to improve their skills. They came to us as a literal start-up – they hadn’t organised a constitution, or insurance costs, or anything. We really did help them start up this fantastic organisation, and the publicity for them was massive.

What do you see as the future of Project SOUP’s work?

Two things – the first is increasing our online presence and making Project SOUP as impactful online as offline. We’re expanding our blogs at the moment, inviting students, non-students and people from all walks of life to write a short opinion or discussion piece on issues they care about, typically on the environment, charities, sustainability, or food waste. That’s been successful so far – we’ve had all sorts of people writing. So I wrote a blog post about my Nan, who came to Britain fleeing Franco’s post-war Spain. She lived on a farm, using nothing but surplus to make gazpacho soup her whole life, so soup’s been really important for me in that sense. I hope it evolves to be a place that people can submit pieces to without us doctoring much.

The second one, in an ideal world, is that I’d like to have more events per term. I feel as though we’ve got the resources, manpower, popularity for two events per term – it’s not right at this point, but there’s scope to increase. It’s good fun, and we’d like to continue in that direction.