How supermarkets can help tackle food waste

By Sarah Thomas, Public Affairs Officer, National Federation of Women’s Institutes, Cardiff

NFWI_0916_food_waste_logoFood waste is once more high on the WI agenda following the ‘Avoid food waste, address food poverty’ resolution passed at the WI’s Annual Meeting in June 2016 calling on all supermarkets to sign up to a voluntary agreement to avoid food waste.

WI members have a long and rich history of working to help everyone prevent food waste by using leftovers, and encouraging people to make the most of local and sustainable food.  Whilst progress has been made to ensure a sustainable food supply and to tackle food waste since the WI’s pioneering efforts in its early days, our members recognise that there is still much more to be done and that supermarkets have a unique position in influencing both food production and consumption.

As a nation the UK wastes more food than anywhere else in Europe, costing the average household £470 per year. Farm land roughly the size of Wales is being used to produce all the food that then goes on to be wasted in our homes, generating the equivalent carbon emissions to one in four cars on our roads. Globally, if we managed to redistribute just a quarter of the food currently wasted, there would be enough food to feed the 870 million people living in hunger. Yet, despite encompassing social, economic and environmental issues, decisive action to tackle food waste has been slow.

A new report published by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes in April is calling on all supermarkets to work much harder to help consumers reduce their food waste and save money.  Wasted opportunities: How supermarkets can help tackle food waste is based on a survey of WI members across Wales, England and the Islands, 5000 of whom shared their views on food waste in the home and investigated practices on the supermarket shelves.

How often are we tempted to purchase more than we need due to multi-buy, multi-pack and other similar offers? Are supermarkets wasting good food by rejecting produce because it is not a uniform shape or size? Whilst supermarkets tell us that they are only responsible for a fraction of overall food waste, our members have found that their marketing and buying practices are having a huge influence on how we buy, consume, and ultimately waste, food.  Below is a snapshot of the findings:-

  • Members found that three-quarters of supermarkets offered multi-buy promotions and told us that they would prefer to be offered a reduction on single items;
  • Members are confused about date labelling, with only 45% correctly identifying that ‘best before’ dates are there to inform consumers about food quality;
  • Members found a huge disparity amongst ‘like for like’ branded and own-branded products when comparing ‘once opened’ instructions;
  • Members oppose supermarket grading standards that mean produce can be rejected because it does not look perfect. More than 90% of members said that they would be happy to buy blemished or misshapen fruit and veg however they found that more than two-thirds of stores didn’t offer them and, if they did, they stocked only one or two products.

Last weekend, our members took part in a Weekend of Action by visiting their local supermarkets to present the WI Food Manifesto to their local supermarket manager and press for action to be taken to address these issues.  Our Food Manifesto calls on supermarkets to adopt four commitments to help reduce food waste in the home and across the supply chain:-

  1. An end to overbuying
  2. Extending the product life of foods in the home
  3. Fully utilising the farm crop
  4. Supermarket transparency on food waste.

With their links to suppliers, consumers and farmers in the UK and around the world, supermarkets are in a powerful position to lead the fight against food waste. Food waste must be tackled. As summed up by a WI survey respondent:- “Ploughing perfectly good food back into the ground because of over-production or grading issues is criminal when people are near the breadline.”

The NFWI will be monitoring the responses of supermarkets in adopting our manifesto asks and during the coming months will be engaging members in the next stage of the Food Matters campaign which will be focusing on food poverty.

Further information about the Food Matters campaign, including the report and manifesto, is available on the WI website:- www.thewi.org.uk

Dustbin image by Speedkingz, Shutterstock.

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Reducing food waste

truck dumping foodWhen an estimated one-third of the food produced on farms around the world never reaches the table, and people are going to bed hungry even in the UK, something must be wrong. How come our food supply chains are so leaky and what are we going to do about it? In a globalized economy, some of the explanation is well out of the reach of local communities, but the loss from supermarkets and households is something we can all get to grips with.

At the WRAP Cymru/FareShare Surplus Food Summit last week, an invited audience got to work on the question: How to redistribute supermarket food surplus to best effect, not simply diverting it from landfill to stomachs, but also getting the best social and environmental benefits in the process?

During the course of the morning, some fascinating facts emerged. Food banks often have a waiting list of volunteers keen to help. Whether supermarkets are willing to give their food waste to community groups depends on the attitude of the manager, their head office, and even just the staff who happen to be on duty on a given day. Only 2% of the 10 million tonnes of food thrown away in the UK each year is from retailers; much more, 70%, is from households, as we buy too much and leave things at the back of the fridge.

The sheer complexity of the problem was evident. This is a challenge to be tackled on many levels, not least IT, as the FareShare FoodCloud partnership with Tesco shows. Environmental health regulations, storage facilities, transport and training come into it too. The task of sorting out working relationships between supermarkets, community groups, local government and volunteers is probably the biggest though, and it is one in which values have a part to play.

How is the enthusiasm of many supermarket store managers and individual staff to be translated into company policy, to be reinforced by training and facilities? What motivates volunteers to help out, and how can they be made more effective? How can we remove the stigma of surplus food being for poor people and see it simply as food, for which we all have a responsibility and which we can all enjoy? How to fit food redistribution into the bigger picture of fair food for all, linking it for instance to the local food movement?

These are all questions we will be asking in our next Food Values event, in Aberystwyth. We’ll be working with an existing student initiative that links supermarkets to charities and asking how we could take it to the next level. What might that look like – a food waste café, vans, a website, a warehouse perhaps – and who could help it happen? It will mean forging new partnerships between people with very different interests, and these will be much more effective if people think in terms of the greater good, as well as what’s in it for them. It will mean people coming together on a human level, because they are members of the communities in which they live, and coming up with something new.

To do that we’ll be hearing from the inspirational food waste café at Fishguard, which saves an estimated 21 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually by diverting food from landfill, and is an important social hub. We’ll also hear from some of the supermarkets and charities already working with surplus food in Aberystwyth, and by sharing the stories of individuals involved, we’ll find out what’s important to them and see where there is common ground.

The result will be much more than an action plan for food waste redistribution in Aberystwyth. It will include an insight into what makes a community tick, and how to bring together business, community and government in order to serve their local area. It will, we hope, be another example of the way in which food, touching as it does so many aspects of our lives, is also a powerful force for individual, social and environmental transformation.

Using surplus food to power community growth

Jane Powell paid a visit to a café in Pembrokeshire which serves food with a difference

Next to the offer of plum crumble on the blackboard at the Fishguard Transition Café  in north Pembrokeshire is a helpful note: ‘may contain stones’. That remark sets the tone for our visit to this pioneering enterprise, where meticulous attention to detail and a warm human touch combine to form a community project with an imaginative contribution to a town’s food system.

three women in a cafe

Serving customers at the Fishguard Transition Café

Most of the food served at the Cafe, which offers a choice of home-cooked dishes in bright and tasteful surroundings, is supplied by local food businesses. It is surplus produce, mainly fruit, vegetables, bread and dairy, but also some meat and other items, from the no-man’s land between the much misunderstood ‘best before’ date, which marks the point at which the manufacturer estimates that it might start to lose its premium quality, and the ‘use by’ date, after which there are real dangers to health and it cannot legally be served.

 

Perishable food in this zone is perfectly fit to eat – certainly the plums were at the peak of perfection, aromatic and sharp – but it needs to be used fairly quickly, and what is a liability for a supermarket becomes an opportunity for the enterprising bargain-hunter or in this case the community project with the facilities to handle it. Tinned and packaged foods, meanwhile, can be kept for months and even years. The Fishguard Transition Cafe turns surplus food – around 850 kg a month of it – into nutritious meals while also providing a space for volunteers and community groups to come together, forming a lively hub for discussions.

It’s a simple concept but a complex operation. Food arrives daily and menus are planned around what’s available – the main dish when we visited was mushroom stroganoff, with roast beetroot – while some of it is frozen, preserved or pickled. Like the supermarkets which supply it, the cafe has its own waste stream, with excess food given away in the cafe, sent for composting or biodigestion, or diverted to animal feed. Record-keeping for the Cafe, as for any food business, is demanding. Besides weighing the daily food deliveries, a note is made of allergens, food that has been cooked but cannot be used immediately is labelled and frozen, and cleaning routines are checked off. It’s clear that managing the surplus food for a small town and its hinterland is no small task, but the very intricacy of it also allows for a scale of human involvement that brings opportunities.

The cafe obviously makes an important contribution to improving the diets of local people who cannot afford to cook such meals themselves, although as volunteer director Chris Samra says, the stigma of ‘food poverty’ sometimes deters people who might benefit most. However, it was actually set up to reduce carbon emissions by diverting food from landfill, to the tune of an estimated 21 tonnes of carbon savings per year. It gets its name from the Fishguard Transition Group who formed in 2008 from a group of citizens who identified with a wider movement to make the ‘transition’ to a low-carbon society.

They began by setting up allotments and running gardening courses, with the aim of helping more people to grow their own, together with other activities to engage the local community. In 2012 they hit upon the idea of a cafe running on surplus food, acquiring premises rent-free from the next door Coop supermarket. A plaque on the wall acknowledges donations of furnishings, equipment, labour and cash to the project, from a wide range of donors including several national chain stores, a youth club, a farm, a solicitor, a hotel and a range of voluntary and government agencies.

Behind the scenes: weighing produce

Behind the scenes: weighing the produce as it comes in

Around about the same time, they embarked on the lengthy process of owning a wind turbine, raising loans from local residents. Generating an income from the wind is important, because the grants that helped the cafe get started are not such a renewable resource. Support by Environment Wales for a part-time project manager post, now in its fourth year, was key to getting the project started, and the Jobs Growth Wales scheme helped to get some young people onto the staff, which together with support from the group’s voluntary directors meant that they could run on volunteers to begin with.

The cafe has also been supported by the Wales Cooperative Centre, who funded a business plan, and  itwon the 2014 Sustainable Communities competition at the Hay Festival which provided a grant. Takings have grown and it is becoming more financially viable, but it still needs grants to cover some of its running and labour costs, including some part-time kitchen staff who provide continuity for the volunteers who assist with food preparation, record keeping and service at the counter.

The cafe is not just a means of turning surplus food into affordable meals. It is also a training facility, where volunteers, catering students and others with learning disabilities can acquire skills in a safe environment. It is a social hub where anyone can come for a healthy meal during the day from Tuesday to Friday, and at many out-of-hours events. It runs play sessions for families with young chidren, craft sessions for older children and adults, and drop-in sessions for Welsh learners. It also distributes food parcels on behalf of the Pembrokeshire food bank scheme PATCH, which means that some see it as a place ‘for poor people’, but it has always drawn in people from a wide cross-section of society, using food as a point of connection to drive social change.

The Fishguard Transition Cafe shows what can be done when food businesses, big and small, identify with their local area (in this case, within a 15-mile radius) and make common cause with community groups, so that surplus food builds social capital. There are other examples, like the Pay as You Feel cafe in Bethesda, Gwynedd,and the Real Junk Food cafe in Cardiff , each with a different take on the theme.

Wouldn’t it be great if every neighbourhood in Wales had one?

Talking to the politicians

This article by Jane Powell appeared in the Daily Post on 1 October 2015

Next year, Wales gets the chance to have a new government. What would you like the politicians to campaign for in the run-up to May’s elections?

A group of food researchers are working on a manifesto that will tell them what sort of food system the people of Wales want to see in future, and we would like to hear what you care about.

Food touches every area of our lives. Take food waste, for instance. UK supermarkets run on a system where in order to keep the shelves fully stocked with fresh food, a high proportion of perfectly good food is routinely thrown away.

Action is being taken by the likes of FareShare Cymru to distribute the surplus food, but maybe it’s time for more drastic action.

In France, supermarkets are obliged to give their unsold food to charities or for animal feed, and are banned from throwing it away. Should we try that here?

Most of us waste at least some food at home, too. Maybe we bought too much. The government cannot do much about that, but how about more cookery lessons in schools and in the community to encourage people to prepare healthy meals, and to rediscover the pleasures of eating together?

There is increasing interest in growing our own food, too. But in Wales there are very few skilled horticulturists, and we end up importing most of our fruit and vegetables, even those which could easily be grown here.

This is a complex problem, one worth tackling by government.

Welsh agriculture is central to the food system of course, and it’s important to sort out our policy on land use. Do we farm for export markets, or for home consumption, or a bit of both?

What do we want our farmland to do? Grow food, encourage wildlife, prevent flooding, look beautiful and attract tourists? Government policy has a major role to play here, through subsidies and other forms of support.

Government can also affect markets, for instance by requiring local authorities and other public sector organisations to make it easier for Welsh food businesses to supply schools, hospitals, prisons and so on.

Do we want to serve more local food in school meals?

Do we want to serve more local food in school meals?

It might cost a bit more than imported food, but then it also gives farming a boost. Which do we want to see?

And then there’s the question of food banks. Last year’s All Party Parliamentary Inquiry report, Feeding Britain, found that more and more people are turning to emergency food aid: wages are low, social networks are weak and the food system is no longer resilient enough. What are we going to do about that?

Partly it’s a problem of poverty, and partly it’s about the food system itself, which delivers high quality fresh food to some, while others live in “food deserts” where it is hard to find fresh produce, and shops stock highly processed, fat- and sugar-laden products.

Fundamentally, it is a question of how we value our food, and that comes down to how we see our society and the environment.

In a recent research study led by Aberystwyth University, we shared meals with refugees in Cardiff and pensioners in Gwynedd, as well as schoolchildren, students, organic farmers and many others.

They all discussed how food connects them with family and friends, and how they wanted to see the best quality food available to everyone.

They wanted to see food skills being passed down the generations. They thought it mattered where food comes from – that it shouldn’t be an anonymous commodity, and that the person who grew it got a fair price.

Our food system doesn’t quite work like that at the moment, but it could.

It’s time to ask for change from our government, and it’s time to make changes ourselves. Start growing in your back garden. Join a community garden. Seek out food in the shops that fits with your values – animal welfare, local, organic, as it may be – and be prepared to pay a little more for it.

Find another way altogether of buying it, perhaps through a veg co-op or farmers market. Try out a new recipe and visit a food festival this autumn. Organize a community meal at your church, mosque, school or workplace. Donate some high quality food to your nearest food bank.

And write in to the Food Manifesto. It’s at http://foodmanifesto.wales and http://maniffestobwyd.cymru.

The sharing economy’s role in re-shaping food distribution

By David Frost

Organic farmers and growers naturally welcome the return to growth in the market for organic food that the Soil Association and market analysts have been reporting for the past three years. Organic producers are more than just profit maximisers however; they also want to expand their market because they believe organically produced food has health benefits and because organic food production systems are sustainable and environmentally benign. As the recently published, ‘Communicating Organic Food Values’ puts it, “Organic farming is well suited to developing a vision of long-term systematic change to the food system.”

Despite these values there has been insufficient concern in the organic food and farming discourse about how organic food and its benefits can be made available to those on the lowest incomes. Even the multiple retailers who trade the most in organic food and pride themselves on their ethical, environmental and animal welfare credentials are targeting customers with most spending power. No surprise then that as market research suggests, sixty-six percent of all organic purchases are made by ABC1s and when non-buyers are asked why they don’t buy organic food, over half say that price is the main barrier. For those on low incomes it has to be the case of, “grub first, then ethics”. http://organicfoodandfarming.org.uk/organic-food-can-we-reduce-the-price-barrier/

It’s also the case that because food inequality is so closely related to income inequality it doesn’t seem to merit being a separate category in most political debates. As many people argue, we can’t solve the problem of food inequality without reducing the general level of inequality in society. While this may be true, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do something about food inequality in the short-term.

In the work Naomi Salmon and I have been doing on Affordable Food and Human Rights my focus has been to look at how consumer access to good, and particularly organic food, can be improved during a period of increasing income inequality and declining social justice. How can we tackle food poverty? How can the best, nutritious food be made more widely available to those on low incomes?

Reformers need to remember that the long term is ultimately a series of short terms and in the economy, markets are continually changing. In the current situation, analysts have pointed to the incipient rise of a collaborative economy as new technology enables greater sharing of goods and services. In the UK food market we see examples such as Food Cooperatives like the Food Cooperative programme in Wales which has provided healthy Welsh food to the community through 340 healthy buying groups and 130 foods coops in schools; Food Banks – that on some estimates are used by up to 1 million people; Social Supermarkets that sell discounted food exclusively to those in poverty; FareShare – an organization that distributes surplus supermarket food; and Food Assemblies, platforms that have spread to the UK after starting in France in 2011.

There is also a group aiming to build their own new food system. In Greater Manchester, Kindling is trying to create a model that helps people to become organic food producers and increases access to good fresh food for everyone – “…as a right and not a privilege” in their words. So they are including people from all along the food chain –producers, distributors, caterers, customers and ‘land army volunteers’.

In Berlin – the sharing capital of Europe – I came across the Feuerbohne organic-shop-collective who want to make it possible for a larger number of people to buy organic food by having two price options: the solidarity price and the reduced price. And there is Biosphäre a not-for-profit retail shop where they say, “Organic for everyone. Our two price system with a reduced price for those on a low income means that good quality organic food doesn’t have to be a luxury”.

Also in Berlin, the first supermarket without prepackaged goods opened 2015.

Meanwhile in Zurich, Tor14 – a food cooperative – has aims similar to the Welsh Community Food Cooperatives. Their objective is to provide members with high quality, organic and GM free produce, where possible directly from the producer, at fair and affordable prices. Their shop offers organic products on average 30% cheaper than other food shops in Switzerland. Producers are paid a fair price and Tor14 also operates a weekly veg box which can be delivered by bicycle to customers’ home; and there are special offers such as bulk orders of citrus fruits from Spain and whole beef carcass from a Demeter farm, etc.

This year in the UK another discovery for me has been, ‘How it Should Be’ – hiSbe, a pilot store for an independent supermarket chain that started in Brighton in December 2013. They say, “It’s a social enterprise that exists to do the right thing, as well as make money.” With sentiments that recall how the Himalayan state of Bhutan sought to replace the goal of increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with Gross National Happiness (GNH), hiSbe say “ putting happiness first is a route to a more responsible, fair and sustainable food industry… we consider the happiness of people, animals and the planet when it comes to sourcing our products.” Their aim is operationalised by a sourcing policy summarised in eight imperatives – go local, pick seasonal, protect nature, support ethical, think welfare, save fish, consider waste, choose real.

Not bad ideas to include in a Food Manifesto for Wales.

There are many examples of what is being achieved in the short term. Maybe they don’t fully achieve the objectives of tackling food poverty and making the best, nutritious food available to all those on low incomes, but we need to avoid the pitfall of making the best the enemy of the good. These new models of food distribution may indeed be evidence of an emerging collaborative economy that challenges dominant food supply chains in ways that benefit those at either end of the chain: both producers and consumers.

You can contact David by emailing davidfrost@tyn-yr-helyg.com or by visiting his website at www.tyn-yr-helyg.com

Food: A conversation we can all take part in

By Rosa Robinson (published in the Western Mail & Wales Online 27 August 2015)

I wouldn’t describe myself as a food expert or an environmentalist. But I am worried that our food system is making us ill, that it’s harming nature, and that the most vulnerable people in society are the worst affected.

I’m troubled by the increase in diet-related illnesses (NHS data analysed by Diabetes UK reveals that diabetes had increased by almost 60% in the decade since 2005) and the increase in malnourishment, often going hand-in-hand with obesity.

I think it’s scandalous that people living in the UK—the 4th richest country in the world—are going hungry while food goes to waste. (The UK is the biggest producer of waste in the EU, throwing away over 14 million tonnes per year).

And I’m concerned that the way we’re producing food is compromising the earth’s capacity to provide us with food in the future.

The truth is that a lot of the food we eat is unhealthy, damaging to the environment, cruel to animals, and unfair to workers it depends on. It’s wasteful and unsustainable.

We need to change the way our food system works. We’re beginning by gathering opinions and experiences from people across Welsh society—academics, businesses and community groups—and we are identifying a list of practicable actions that government can take to support social, economic and environmental equity, through food. We’re writing a food manifesto for Wales.

By ‘we’ I mean a small but growing network of people who think sustainable food is important, and are contributing the time and skills needed to get the food manifesto idea off the ground.

The manifesto isn’t funded and isn’t owned by any particular person or organisation. That’s intentional – we want the manifesto to be developed collaboratively, with people working across society.

What should the Food Manifesto contain? The proposals in Professor Kevin Morgan’s recently published paper, Good Food For All provide an excellent place to start. The paper emphasises the importance of expertise in sustainable public procurement. It identifies the importance of the public purse in delivering value in its broadest sense—i.e. community benefit, training, jobs and other sustainability goals. And it recognises the importance of making ‘good food’ highly visible in the public sector by demonstrating commitment through a credible and recognised catering mark like Food For Life.

What should be included in a food manifesto doesn’t sound much like a dinner table discussion. It’s unlikely that deliberations about food systems, sustainability and ethics often seem relevant to everyday life—not when you’re trying to get dinner on the table for a hungry family—but it’s still vital that the significance of food at a family, neighbourhood and community level is addressed in any food manifesto that is written.

It’s vital because what matters to people – what people value – drives change.

There is substantial research from social psychology and other disciplines, which explains how values work. Values shape our identity and our society. Values influence what we do and how we feel. They connect people and issues. (If you’re interested in finding out more it’s worth looking up Common Cause).

Earlier this year I did a social research project, talking to people living in some of Wales’ least affluent communities about what food means to them. It means family. It means comfort. It’s a celebration. It’s an important part of culture. It’s about sharing with friends and neighbours. It’s about trust, fairness and friendship; it means home. It means nurturing and nourishing the people you love. It means the same things to them as it does to me, but we don’t often have these conversations about food or connect to that deeper meaning—the things we really value.

Food isn’t just a commodity. It brings families, friends and communities together. It connects us with the nature. It provides comfort and security. It builds skills, confidence and feelings of self worth. It increases resilience. These things make people thrive.

Food unites us. It’s a conversation everyone can take part in, and talking about food is how we can make sustainable development meaningful and relevant across society. By finding common ground and shared values we can build a collective commitment to creating a fair food system. This is what the Food Manifesto is all about.

Rosa Robinson is Director of the Work With Meaning Community Interest Company www.workwithmeaning.org.uk