Hidden Hero: Petko Petkoff

The glass half full guy who redistributes unwanted food so the cupboards and kitchens of those in need are kept well stocked. By Nick Hughes.

It takes less than 30 minutes on the phone with Petko Petkoff (pictured left) to realise the OLIO volunteer is a glass half full kind of guy. While many of us struggle with the monotony of days confined to our homes, Petkoff has never been busier. Since March, he’s been working 12 hour days, often seven days a week, delivering food (over 4,000 kg to date and counting) to those in need throughout London. Hospitals, homeless kitchens, even a charity run by missionaries in Southall have benefited from Petkoff’s desire to ensure that good food rendered surplus to market requirements by the coronavirus crisis doesn’t go to waste.

Although the onset of the pandemic has injected a new sense of urgency into Petkoff’s mission, it is not the beginning of his volunteering journey. A self-employed financial controller by trade, it was back in the summer of 2018 that he began looking for an opportunity that would reflect his passion for food and the environment – in particular composting and recycling. He says he was “completely amazed” by what OLIO was doing to collect surplus food and redistribute it, for free, to the local community via its app.

The OLIO app enables organisations such as supermarkets and wholesalers to advertise surplus food that is then collected and distributed by volunteers to other app users. Due to the large quantities of food being collected during Covid-19, volunteers like Petkoff have been finding local groups such as homeless shelters and soup kitchens to bring on board, in addition to existing recipients.

Petkoff initially took on two regular jobs collecting food from local Planet Organic and Tesco stores. When coronavirus gripped the UK, work from his day job slowed down at the same time as shops and restaurants were shutting their doors leading to a surge in surplus food. As a consequence Petkoff became a full time volunteer “by coincidence”.

His day now begins with a trip around the M25 to collect food from distributors like Reynolds and Makro whose hospitality clients have shut their doors. He crams products – from pineapples to energy drinks – into every spare crevice of his car and sets off to deliver it to those in need.

Petkoff realised that some of the best outlets for the food were homeless kitchens. He made his own connections with three such kitchens in West London and began making regular drop offs. “They’ve been extremely pleased to have something extra on top of their regular deliveries,” he says. “Not only that but through this connection to me they get high quality food that either they cannot afford or don’t have access to normally.”

St Mary’s Hospital near Paddington has been another beneficiary of Petkoff’s relentless drive to ensure no good food goes to waste, including a delivery of fresh fruit salads for which “they said a very big thank you the next day”, he recalls proudly.

Petkoff’s philosophy is not to force people to take the food in order to get rid of it double quick. “I always ask everyone, whether it’s an individual or a company, never ask for more food than you can utilise quickly,” he says.

One anecdote in particular offers an insight into the strength of relationships he has built in such a short space of time. Recently, work commitments meant he stopped redistributing food for seven days: “All these kitchen [staff] who were used to seeing me at least twice a day suddenly stopped seeing me.” Within days he started receiving concerned text messages from his customers asking whether he and his family were ok.

As the UK’s lockdown persists, Petkoff says he is happy to keep volunteering for “as long as we’re in this situation”. Far from being cowed by the threat from the virus, he is not just resolute but ebullient. “Do you feel any mourning in my voice?” he asks towards the end of our conversation. “No, I’m happy. What we’re experiencing now is just another challenge to our humanity. This is the best time to show ourselves who we really are.”

If you know a Hidden Hero who would like to share their story email us at editorial@footprint.digital

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