May 13th, 2013
by Hattie Parke
On Saturday evenings I cycle to my local Sainsbury’s, trailer in tow, and collect a stack of ‘Taste the Difference’ loaves, bagels, croissants, pastries and other baked goods that happen not to have sold that day and would otherwise end up in bin bags and never be eaten. This stuff isn’t ‘off’ – it’s been baked fresh that morning, but anything that’s unsold by evening is removed to be replaced with fresh goods the next day.
I do this as a volunteer for the FoodCycle Bristol Hub. We usually get a bag of fruit and veg too, and top this up with more from local green grocers on Sunday morning. The fruit of our labour is a delicious three course meal served at a local community centre, free for anyone who needs or wants it. FoodCycle has 14 hubs across the country, and our food redistribution model addresses two very current issues in the UK’s food system: food waste and food poverty.
You will no doubt have heard some of the shocking statistics flying around news channels, the twittersphere, and newspapers alerting us to the vast quantities of food wasted right the way through the food supply chain. Although some of the data behind the headlines is questionable, the message is clear. At the same time as tonnes of unsold food are going to waste each day, food poverty is on the rise as food price inflation runs ahead of the wage growth. This month Which? reported that one in five families now relies on loans or savings to meet its monthly food bill.
A fascinating report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) for Kellogg’s in March found that UK expenditure on food and non-alcoholic beverages has increased by almost 20% in the past five years, but the volume of food consumed dropped by a little over 7%. It also states that whereas in 2008/09 Trussell Trust foodbanks fed 26,000 people nationwide, by 2011/12 this had risen to 128,697.
There are plenty of vociferous campaigners for the re-distribution of surplus food, which seems like a double win solution within our food system. But I fear that the hard work of volunteers does little more than scratch the surface of the problem.
Every week new volunteers are shocked by the amount of surplus food available, and the implications of what we are not able to do. Considering in Bristol we currently only have 2 trailers, (approximately 80 litres each), 2 bikes and 2 sets of leg power each weekend there’s a limit to the quantity we can collect. What happens to the surplus food on the six evenings that we’re not there? What happens in the many other stores across the city and country that don’t collaborate with a charity like FoodCycle? And what happens to the food that won’t fit in our trailers? You can practically see the bread and banana mountains growing in people’s minds as they stop to contemplate this.
By all accounts, the quantity of surplus food that gets wasted is staggering. WRAP estimates that food wastage in the retail sector is around 362,000 tonnes a year, while waste across the manufacturing, distribution and retail sectors amounts to nearly 3 million tonnes. Redistribution charities tend to focus on retailers’ waste, although there are examples of interventions earlier in the process.
In comparison, even the efforts of the largest food redistribution charities are dwarfed. FoodCycle reports that it has collected 40,000kg of food since its launch in 2008. The rather larger FareShare reports that it redistributed 4,200 tonnes of food last year, 600 tonnes more than the year before. However, the lack of reliable and comprehensive information is itself part of the reason why the problem is perpetuated, and thankfully a WRAP working group set up earlier this year is currently researching and developing data in this area. It is imperative that a robust and accurate baseline is developed in order for the potential impacts of food redistribution networks to be properly measured.
Even without reliable numbers, it is evident from local experience that the charitable redistribution model can only achieve so much. This is in part due to the limited quantity of food that can be collected by small groups of volunteers, and partly to the restricted scope for groups like FoodCycle to redistribute the food that is collected. There simply is not enough capacity in the current network to be able to handle more.
Souping up redistribution
One solution would be to expand the re-distribution network, increasing its capacity to reduce food waste. FoodCycle and FareShare are in fact already working together to expand their operations, supported by grants from Nesta.
It’s not just a question of more volunteers and more bike trailers. Expanding the model requires the support of supermarkets and manufacturers in ‘donating’ surplus food. Current attitudes vary greatly, as the experience of FoodCycle Bristol shows. We recently spoke to two local supermarkets:
- On one end of the scale Supermarket A, who are ‘on a continuous journey to be a more sustainable business…’ are working towards ensuring that all surplus edible food is consumed, rather than ever becoming waste. They have actively contacted FoodCycle Bristol and would ‘love to come and join you for a day to see how your operation works, and to explore the potential ways in which we could help you.’
- Supermarket B, on the other hand, claim to have ‘been at the forefront of responsible retailing issues for more than 15 years’. Despite seeking to reduce food waste in stores and depots they say they ‘cannot authorise the purchase and consumption of waste food from our stores other than by audited, licensed waste management companies.’ Somewhere along the line between store manager, head office, and their customer care line, the aims and objectives of FoodCycle seem to have been completely lost or misinterpreted.
Clearly, expansion of charitable redistribution will require much better communication both within and between supermarket chains, food manufacturers and food redistribution networks so that misconceptions about what can and can’t be done may be addressed. Expansion may also lead to concerns from supermarkets that by giving food away in large quantities, they may undermine their own commercial interests. Perhaps people would buy less food if they knew that if they waited until the end of the day they could get it free of charge. FoodCycle hasn’t specifically targeted the neediest in the past, but is now linking up with established charities that support in need or at risk groups and have good community links. The pilot, supported by a grant from Nesta, aims to help them take on the FoodCycle model and ‘brand’ and incorporate food redistribution with their current activities. Models like this might reassure retailers that their economic interests were being protected.
If we were to succeed in dramatically increasing the scale of redistribution, it would place a heavy reliance on the small voluntary sector organisations operating these schemes and the strength of their redistribution networks. The scale of the potential demand is massive – but charities will need to make sure that the people who need the food know when, where and how to get it. There is a danger that supermarkets enthused by the idea of ‘donating’ food to charities, may get to put a tick in a CSR box, avoid the cost of food waste disposal, and hand the problem of food waste along the chain. If redistribution charities find themselves unable to cope with the volume, they may be the ones left holding the expensive food waste baby. There is a real need for a study around what would best support redistribution organisations to build their capacity and to flourish.
Supermarket cheque out?
If we are to get serious about redistribution as a means of avoiding food waste, retailers and producers need to move beyond just redirecting their surplus food from the bin to the bike trailer. They need to be pushed to invest in and financially support the voluntary sector organisations from whose efforts they benefit. Supermarkets and food manufacturers currently pay for food waste to be disposed of. Would it be unreasonable for them to pay towards it being redistributed instead? It would move the food up the waste hierarchy, and may well be cheaper than throwing it away.
If companies adopted a model where paying for food redistribution became the norm, it would have a number of beneficial effects. The current free collection system does not encourage a reduction in food surplus; it simply creates a cheap route for food surplus to be off loaded. Payment would incentivise efforts to move to the top of the food waste hierarchy and prevent waste through more effective warehouse and in-store management including more efficient processing, stock control and in-store management.
Furthermore, it would provide the food redistribution network with the investment capital needed to expand and operate effectively. Payment would provide the funding needed to expand capacity within the network so that more redistribution could take place, and enable the costs of treating any residual food waste to be absorbed.
Voluntary sector organisations play a vital role in the redistribution of surplus food. However, if they are to make a real dent in the bread and banana mountains ranging across the UK, those responsible for the surplus, both manufacturers and retailers need to take the next step and invest in re-distribution.