Waste no More: Tackling Food Waste in the UK
When I was offered to write about food waste initiatives in the UK, my first reaction was to say that I am not the best person for the job. Food waste has never been a problem for me. In my household, there is hardly any. Once in the blue moon I throw away a piece of rotten fruit or veg and feel terribly guilty about it but that is it. I plan my meals in advance and have a shopping list with me when I go shopping. My partner is brilliant at using up random ingredients when I feel stuck and turning them into a lovely meal.
My attitude towards food comes from childhood. I was a kid growing up in poverty in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and food waste was unheard of. Everyone cooked from scratch and nothing was thrown away. Most produce was sold loose, best before dates were ignored, meat was a luxury and milk was so fresh it had to be used before the expiry date because it went sour! But even then, it was not a problem – soured milk or prostokvasha is a very popular drink in the former USSR. Tastes lovely with a bit of cinnamon on top, by the way.
As if that would not be enough, my grandfather is a WW2 survivor and to him food waste is a crime – it aint’ gonna happen on his watch. I remember being told off when I was little for not eating my apple with the core. Peeling an apple? Forget about it.
Fast forward to the present day… I now live in the UK where food waste is a problem, just like in many other countries. According to The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), “In the UK, we throw away 6.6 million tonnes of household food waste a year in the UK, almost three quarters is food we could have eaten.” Eastern Europe, too, has sadly caught up. In fact, between 40-50% of the food wasted in European countries is in the home . So what can we do about it?
Unsurprisingly, there are many food waste initiatives available in London. One of them is The Felix Project that collects fresh, nutritious food that cannot be sold and delivers it to charities and schools. It was set up by Jane and Justin Byam Shaw in memory of their teenage son Felix who died suddenly in 2014. The couple realised that businesses were willing to donate unsold food but getting it delivered to those in need was the weak point so they took care of logistics. The Felix Project aims to deliver 100 million meals per year in London by 2024.
Another organisation working with surplus food redistribution is WRAP, which operates UK wide. Originally a not-for-profit company it became a charity in 2014 and is currently the UK’s leading sustainability charity working in different sectors. There are plenty more, some of which might be operating in your area.
As for London, it even has a zero waste restaurant. Food waste in catering is a serious problem, however, it is seldom talked about. Ask anyone who has worked in the industry and they will tell you stories about stock rotation not being done properly, places ordering too much food or not making proper use of the ingredients. Some places are better than others in reducing food waste. Silo has tackled the problem head on. They have a flour mill, churn their own butter, make their own oat milk and have an on-site brewery. Any food that has not been consumed is fed into an aerobic digester, which turns it into compost.
Then there are apps, for instance, Karma, TooGoodToGo and MealPal, which allow places to sell discounted food that is nearing its end date. Karma and MealPal sell produce as individual items. TooGoodToGo sells it as mixed bags of goodies. So far in the UK, Too Good To Go has saved 4 million bags of surplus, unsold food. Products will appear on a map allowing customers to see what is available near them and buy and pay for what they want within the app. They will then be given a window of time to pick the item up, which will usually be a couple of hours long. A different kind of app is Olio – it is designed for donating surplus food for people in your area. Tessa Clarke, Olio co-founder, thought up the idea when she was moving abroad and had no one to donate her food to.
Personally, I have not used any of the apps. I live in a rural area: would I take the bus to collect something from a place 10 miles away? Probably not. 20 miles away? Definitely not as the return bus journey would take too long. Another challenge is dietary requirements – I do not eat meat. Would there be anything suitable for me at the end of the day? From my experience, veggie options tend to sell really well during the day meaning there might not be much – if anything – left over.
Outskirts of Norwich
What to do if you live in a rural area? Enter the community fridge. There are two in my area: one in Sheringham, one in Cromer. In June I visited the Cromer community fridge and larder, and spoke to its creator, Rachel Sidell.
The community fridge and larder is located at Merchants Place, a community resource and learning centre. The fridge is aimed at preventing food waste and has food with short expiry dates. It is open for everyone. The larder is an emergency top up and not a replacement for a food shop. It is also stocked with toiletries and other non-food essentials. On top of that, there are also recipe ideas and food bags. Food bags are prepared if Merchants Place gets a lot of something. On the day I visited there were Parsnip Carbonara food bags available.
Food is donated by various sources: local Morisons and both Co-Ops, Craft Bakery on Bond Street, other local businesses and caravan parks. Some food items are donated by members of the public and locals who have allotments nearby.
The Community Fridge accepts fruit, vegetables, bread and dairy but not meat. As Rachel explained, they have no facilities for cooking raw meat before it expires whereas such meat products as ham and sausages cannot be used as animal feed.
The fridge opened in July 2020 and no donated food has gone to waste. Any leftovers – and there are not many – get donated to the local Amazona Zoo and/or locals who use it to feed their chickens and pigs.
Rachel got the idea for a community fridge a few years ago but it was the first lockdown in March 2020 that allowed her to start working on it as the normally busy Merchants Place had to close. And so the Cromer Community Fridge was finally born, offering food and support during the difficult times. It supports people in need, families, rough sleepers and elderly people.
Rachel received a grant from the Norfolk Community Foundation to buy a fridge (£800) and order bespoke shelves as the room allocated for the fridge and larder is quite small and standard shelves would not fit. A freezer (£160) was added later. Recently the project received funding from the National Lottery allowing Rachel to hire Charlotte, a fixed term Fridge Coordinator, as much needed help. Charlotte deals with daily emptying and sanitation of the fridge, collects food donations – there are no drop-offs, prepares meal kits and does the general running of the fridge and freezer.
At the moment 10-15 families use the fridge every day but back in December when the heating bills went up and many locals found themselves struggling to afford food, 30 families a day would visit the Community Fridge.
The fridge is not part of a community fridge network Hubbub as the requirements are too complex: all food donations would need to be weighed in and out and the fridge would have the same requirements as a food business. Given that the Cromer Community Fridge is busy as it is, Rachel prefers to keep things as simple as possible. The Sheringham Community Fridge, managed by Yesu, is also run independently.
Another option is Riverford, who deliver to most parts of the country. This hugely successful organic vegetable producer and vegetable box delivery company that is trying to change the system of food production and consumption, including by reducing waste.
If you’re looking to reduce your own food waste, Love Food Hate Waste offers useful tips on how to store food to avoid wasting it and has plenty of tasty and easy recipes on their website. And in this article, Judy Cooper offers twelve food-waste reduction tips that even the busiest person can put into action, ranging from ordering a starter instead of a main course to eating your cow before your carrots.
Whatever you’re doing to cut food waste, you’re making an important contribution to tackling climate change: According to a study in Science, 186 megatons of carbon dioxide can be attributed to food waste in Europe annually. Each bit of food saved from going to waste can reduce this total: every carrot counts!