Is it time to close the loop in our food production?

UK TV chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is standing up against food waste in the supermarket world. In his latest documentary for the BBC, Hugh’s War on Waste, he describes watching 20 tonnes of freshly dug parsnips, enough to provide 100,000 people with a generous portion each, consigned to the rubbish heap of a Norfolk farmyard as “one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen”, particularly when you consider this is the amount typically discarded each week by just one supplier.

Responding to the shocking fact that a third of the food produced in Britain will currently never be eaten, food waste campaigners Feedback are challenging the supermarkets on what suppliers have called an “arms race” of cosmetic standards.  “We have proof that people are only too happy to buy this stuff,” founder Tristram Stuart told Hugh. “In years of poor harvest, the cosmetic standards are relaxed, and the farmers are asked to bag up the ever-so-slightly bendy or blemished produce that would normally be rejected. Of course nobody even notices.”

It’s a similar story throughout the supply chain. Tesco, in the news earlier this year for a attempting to prosecute an impoverished couple for rescuing food from its bins, has admitted to discarding 30,000 tonnes of perfectly edible food each year, mostly bakery or fresh fruit and vegetables. Morrisons estimates each of its stores discards about four trolley-loads a week.  Even goods that make it home may still end up in landfill. Almost 50% of wasted food and drink in the UK is from households. That’s seven million tonnes. Campaigns urging shoppers to consider ‘use by’ dates as guidance only, and to avoid being encouraged by special offers to buy too much perishable food, point out that this waste costs the typical household between £400 and £700 a year.

Alongside the NGOs, one UK company has also responded. Company Shop, set up to sell surplus food and other goods to member businesses, has now opened two Community Shops, making this food and drink available cheaply to local people in food poverty. A successful pilot in deprived Goldthorpe, South Yorkshire was followed by a full-size social supermarket which opened in West Norwood, London at the end of last year. Each can accept 750 members, all of whom must live nearby and be receiving income support. The members-only shops stock surplus food from supermarkets and brands including Marks & Spencer, the Co-op, Morrison’s, Innocent and Müller. Both sites also offer further support like debt advice, and cookery and budgeting training.

In May 2015, London Mayor Boris Johnson announced £300,000 of funding for new social supermarkets in other London boroughs, and more are also expected to open across the UK. In July, Community Shop joined forces with charity, FoodCycle, launched in 2009 to reduce ​social isolation and​ food poverty​. Volunteer-run FoodCycle Hubs use up wasted food to offer free three-course meals to the vulnerable, and each Community Shop will now feature a FoodCycle hub for its membership.

More than 100,000 people have already signed an online petition urging the government to force supermarkets to distribute unsold food among the needy.  In response, Morrisons has announced that it will appoint a member of staff in each of its 500 UK stores to arrange the donation of surplus food to local community projects. In June, Tesco announced a similar plan to donate all their surplus food through the charity FareShare. Tesco managers will now use the FoodCloud mobile app to highlight any food available for collection.

While we in the UK wait to see if others decide to follow suit, the French national assembly has already voted to pass legislation making it compulsory for supermarkets with 1,000 square metres of floor space to give “unsold but still consumable food products to at least one food charity”. Belgium was the first European country to introduce a similar a law in May. Closing the loop by using up food discarded solely in the interest of supermarkets’ profits seems an obvious response to both food waste and food poverty.

It’s heartening to see Community Shop creating a realistic solution, and it does look as if the big supermarkets are beginning to wake up to the fact that we don’t want to be part of a system that routinely wastes good food.

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