A lot of the focus of Food Waste Action Week is, rightly, upon reducing the amount of food we waste at home. After all this is where 70% (6.6 million tonnes) of food waste happens once it has left the farm gate.
But home is not the only place that food waste occurs. 16% occurs in manufacture, 12% in hospitality and food service and 3% in retail. Part of the reason that food waste in retail is so low – if I have understood the figures correctly – is that surplus food that is redistributed to humans or diverted to produce animal feed is not food waste but classed as waste prevention instead.
Food manufacturers, retailers and hospitality and food service providers, large and small, regularly find themselves with food that is perfectly edible but surplus to requirements, around 740,000 tonnes per year*.
In this post I want to focus on what happens to this surplus food. In particular the network of groups in Reading that are quietly rescuing surplus food to provide affordable meals for people who need them, the Smartphone Apps that are helping people find and share surplus produce – peer to peer and business to consumer – and the innovators that are challenging the whole idea of food waste.
An inspiring community of food connectors
Reading has a fantastic network of local organisations that quietly collect surplus food from local supermarkets to use to help make sure people in their community don’t go hungry. As a couple of examples:
- Foodshare operates out of Wycliffe Baptist Church and is open four nights a week. During 2021 around 173,000 items of food were collected from Coop Stores, with an estimated value of £118,126, and handed out to 14,257 people.
- The Weller Centre Community Bakery: Six times a week, staff and volunteers head out to collect surplus food from local Co-op, Tesco , Waitrose and M&S branches. During lockdown most of this food went into care packs but in normal times it is also used to provide hot meals Monday – Friday. In the last year the team made 353 collections, equating to 6,094kg, 14,509 meals and 19,500kg in CO2 savings. These figures only relate to produce collected via FareShare. The team reckon that with collections outside the FareShare scheme these numbers could be doubled. The Weller Centre is in the process of setting up a community fridge to complement their bakery.
- Veg4Reading takes a slightly different approach. Instead of collecting surplus food from supermarkets and other retailers, Veg4Reading distributes fresh fruit and vegetables that have been grown in community gardens and allotments to a network of charities and organisations across the town. These include Reading Red Kitchen, New Beginnings, Sadaka, Whitley CDA, CIRDIC and The Weller Centre. One of the advantages of working with this sort of diverse network is that Veg4Reading is able to minimise waste by matching produce to the needs of different organisations and the groups with which they work. For example, if they have a lot of huge squashes they will go to organisations that are cooking meals rather than to individual families. Bags of fresh salad are likely to go to organisations that have a community fridge. Little eating apples might go to organisations working with refugee families, whilst a bag of windfall cooking apples will go to organisations making large volumes of apple crumble. It requires lots of communication and extra effort to allocate the produce, but the result is limited wastage.
So what happens to surplus, surplus food? To stop any left-over surplus food going to landfill, Foodshare has invested in a composter that converts food waste into concentrated compost in 24 hours. The resulting Foodshare compost is currently used by Food4Families and local gardening groups.
Barriers to making use of the Food
To inform the development of future services, over the summer Food4Families, Reading Borough Council and the University of Reading undertook some informal research with users of food hubs to find out about barriers they experienced in making use of the food they are given, and what might help. People identified challenges of time (many are juggling more than one job alongside family commitments), access to cooking equipment as well as balancing different diets of family members. Sometimes people were unfamiliar with the food they were given and unsure how to make something delicious from it, or they said some ingredients were too ‘new’ for their children or not something that family members wanted to try night after night. The team at Food4Families is now working with local partners and users of food hubs to find creative responses.
‘Appy to ‘Elp
As in most areas of life, there are now an increasing number of Smartphone Apps to help cut food waste, including ones that help users offer and find new homes for surplus edible food. Two that focus on avoiding surplus food going to waste are Too Good to Go and Olio.
- Too Good To Go alerts you to cafes, restaurants, hotels, shops and manufacturers nearby with surplus food. Food is put into Too Good To Go bags and sold at a discount. You sort of know what you are getting because of the seller (a bakery is likely to offer bread and cakes) but the exact composition of a bag’s contents depends on what is on the shelf that needs to go. It is the surprise element of Too Good To Go! Unsurprisingly it is popular amongst students (although used by all ages).
- Olio connects neighbours with each other and with local businesses to avoid surplus food going to waste. This might be food nearing its sell-by date in local stores, spare home-grown vegetables, bread from your baker, or the groceries in your fridge when you go away. If you’ve got an item to share you simply open the app, add a photo, description, and when and where the item is available for pick-up. To access items, you simply browse the listings available near you, request whatever takes your fancy and arrange a pick-up via private messaging.
- Oddbox is another great initiative ensuring surplus food doesn’t go to waste and they have compiled a nifty list of ‘7 apps that are helping reduce food waste’.
Food entrepreneurs who are thinking differently about waste
Being innovative and entrepreneurial are almost certainly part of the job description of anyone drawn to finding uses for surplus food: to track down surplus food, to find creative ways to connect with those who can use it and, in some cases, to conjure up recipes suitable for whatever turns up.
With growing awareness and concern about the impact of food waste it is perhaps unsurprising that a growing number of people starting their career in food are also making it their business to use surplus food as their starting point. Below are a couple of examples. Not specific to Reading, but am sure there are people innovating locally. If you are one of those people, do get in touch.
The first episode of Chris King’s podcast ‘Food is … wasted’, back in 2017, was with Hannah McCollum of ChicP. At the time she was honing recipes for her new range of hummus dips made with surplus vegetables sourced from local markets. During the interview she made a Brussels Sprout hummus. After listening to the podcast it was great to visit the ChicP web site and see how Hannah’s start-up has grown. Still with the same passion for using ‘surplus wonky vegetables’ to make hummus but now with a fully developed range of hummus dips on sale through a national network of stockists. Also that they’ve teamed up with Too Good To Go to ensure that, if there is any surplus ChicP hummus left on their shelf at the end of the day, it finds a home before becoming food waste. (Chris King’s podcast, and also photo essays, are worth checking out for other interviewees and food waste topics covered. Visit the Food is Wasted web site for links.)
A recent article in The Guardian, Yorkshire start-ups vie for a slice of the meat and dairy substitute pie, profiled some of the growing number of food start-ups that are helping make Yorkshire ‘the Silicon Valley of plant-based food’.
With Reading university’s strong food and farming connections and a vibrant independent food sector in the town, there must also be food entrepreneurs in Reading using surplus food as a raw material or taking a radical approach to reducing waste. It’d be great to meet them in future blogs.
As you may have gathered, writing this blog post has been a voyage of discovery.
I didn’t realise that there was quite so much already going on, in Reading and further afield, albeit not yet enough. Against this background it is great to see a growing appetite for innovation, with existing pioneers and new entrants challenging the very idea of food waste. Finally, how we approach food waste and food surpluses – individually, as businesses and as communities – goes to the heart of the transition to a sustainable food system. Writing this blog post has left me excited about the opportunities.
As with so much in Reading, we are not short of enthusiasm and creativity. I look forward to seeing what the organisations mentioned in this post, and others, do over the coming year. I know that I have only just scratched the surface of this topic. Do let me know if you have spotted yawning gaps or organisations or initiatives that I should have mentioned. Alternatively if you are involved with a project that is working towards making Reading a sustainable, healthy food place and would like to write a blog post to share your experience, please get in touch at email@example.com
Paul Ducker, Resources and Consumption Theme Lead at Reading Climate Action Network
*Of this 740,000 tonnes of surplus food about 80,000 tonnes is currently redistributed for humans, via charity or commercially. The remaining, 660,000 tonnes (89%) becomes animal feed.