May 10th, 2012
On Saturday 12th May, Bristol will be the first city outside London to host a Feeding the 5000 (F5K) event. Between 1pm and 5pm, anyone who comes to visit College Green will have the chance to disprove the old adage – there really can be such a thing as a free lunch, thanks to the support of local charities, businesses and volunteers, including some of Bristol’s top chefs such as the Fabulous Baker Brothers, Tom Hunt and the Thali Café.
All of the fresh food donated to FareShare South West for the event would otherwise have gone to waste, just as millions of tonnes do each year. By turning some of it into a nutritious, free lunch F5K demonstrates how needless this waste is in a more compelling way than any number of worthy speeches from the soapbox. I hope that as people enjoy the delicious wonky veg curry on the day, they will be asking two questions – why is there so much waste, and what can I do about it?
The reasons why waste occurs are well worth exploring. We need to understand them in order to see the solutions, and a surprising amount of the change needs to happen right at the earliest stages of food production and distribution.
Left to rot
Why would the fresh, nutricious food eaten at F5K otherwise never have found its way to human consumption? Supermarkets now have such stringent cosmetic standards that “outgrade” produce is becoming a major problem. Knobbly carrots, blemished apples, tomatoes that aren’t quite the right colour – very few of them will make it to the produce aisle. Where food is harvested mechanically, outgrades could be sold into secondary markets – for catering, industrial processing or animal feed. But there simply isn’t enough accessible demand to mop up all the rejects – and where crops are picked by hand, there is simply no reason for farmers to harvest outgrades at all, so a great deal just gets left to rot and is ploughed back into the soil.
F5K reminds people that food doesn’t have to be pretty to taste good. Many who buy from supermarkets’ value ranges, which include cosmetically imperfect produce, will already be conscious of this, but we need to persuade both the big chains and the smaller suppliers that consumers are open to more relaxed cosmetic standards.
Even so, some food still won’t make the grade, and farmers need help to develop secondary markets. It isn’t easy for them to invest time in finding suitable business partners – soup makers, pig farmers, and many others may be interested and there is a role for entrepreneurial intermediaries to act as food waste matchmakers.
Where no secondary market can be found, farmers, distributors, food manufacturers and retailers should be encouraged to turn to charities like FareShare, who will be only too happy to take food off their hands. For material that is still in the field, we can expand participation in gleaning groups, as is happening in the US. The Gleaning Network UK is in its nascent stage, but I’ve witnessed the amazing quantity of good fresh food that an eager group of volunteers can harvest – a couple of tonnes in an afternoon is quite achievable and can provide for thousands of meals for people that really need them.
Climbing the pyramid
There’s waste all the way from the field to the plate, but at each stage the same issues crop up. I find it helpful to think in terms of a pyramid of solutions.
- At the top of the pile is the preferred option of preventing the waste from happening in the first place, perhaps by relaxing arbitrary barriers like “best before” and ‘display until’ dates; planning orders to avoid overproduction; maximising shelf-life through better storage; identifying alternative markets to keep food in the human food chain
- Next is redistribution, ensuring that food fit for human consumption is passed on to charities so that people can eat it
- A little lower down is the use of permissible food waste that is not fit for human consumption as animal feed
- And right at the bottom is composting and AD – better than landfill, but still a poor return on all of the energy that goes into growing and distributing food.
Redistribution is one area where there has been serious progress in just the last few years. Pret a Manger’s commitment to redistributing all of its spare sandwiches through local charities used to be the exception in the food business. Lately, though, the supermarkets’ engagement with redistribution has increased. Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s has begun to send its leftover bread for use as livestock feed; and while Marks and Spencer’s claim of a 37% reduction in food waste is difficult to verify, the fact that they make the claim at all shows that the issue has grown in prominence.
But the big supermarkets that have signed up to the Courtauld Commitment have so far only achieved a pathetic 0.4% reduction in food waste. There’s still a very long way to go – redistribution is around 10 times more prevalent in the US than it is here, and FareShare could easily expand its current operations.
It’s important that this message is heard, because big retailers are nothing if not responsive to consumer demands. If we all demand less waste, they will listen. I’d encourage anyone who is in Bristol on 12th May to come down to College Green, get fed, sign up to the F5K pledge to reduce their own food waste, and tell businesses they must do the same.