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Man tipping vegetables into container. Consumers & supermarkets need to tackle food waste

Campaigners say feeding those suffering from food poverty should be a priority. Photos : Catuxa Argibay

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Supermarket food waste to power renewable energy instead of tackling food poverty

Matilda Lee

23rd December, 2011

Food aid charities argue supermarket food waste could help prevent hunger in vulnerable people. Yet supermarkets' anaerobic digestion plans may eclipse food redistribution says Matilda Lee

For little more than the price of a big cup of coffee at Starbuck's you can get a warm and hearty three-course lunch made from scratch at the Station House Community Café in Haringey, London. The café is a ‘big society' outfit: run by volunteers, with a social mission and a linchpin in a community that, like many others, has suffered the closing of local shops. All the food that goes into making £4 veggie lunch at the café are donated by the nearby Sainsbury's supermarket. This is perfectly good fruit and vegetables that the supermarket can no longer sell and would otherwise go to waste.

Danny Turi, Station House's newly hired manager, explains how it works: ‘On Thursdays I go by the Sainsbury's in Haringey and pick up the food they have donated. At 3:30 pm, 4 volunteers show up, we lay it out on a table and in 15 minutes we devise a menu of two starters, one main and three desserts. What I love most about cooking is that it's local, vegetarian and seasonal. Everything is perfectly edible - just nearing or on its sell-by date'.

Both the Station House Café and the Pie in the Sky Cafe in Bromley-by-Bow, which serves, ‘the healthiest meal in the square mile' of an area saturated with chip shops and off licenses, were started by Kelvin Chung (pictured below), via his food non-profit Food Cycle.

The aim of these cafes is to put to good use at least a little of the 361,800 tonnes of fresh food waste produced by supermarkets each year, according to WRAP. Up until quite recently, most of this waste was sent to landfill, but food distribution charities are desperate for the donations to enable them to serve thousands of people for nothing or next to nothing.

Activists say that supermarkets' food waste could provide those suffering from 'food poverty' access to fresh, healthy meals and are pushing for supermarkets to integrate the distribution of food waste to charities into their food waste plans. For example, last year, the food industry redirected 3,600 tonnes of surplus food to FareShare enabling the charity to provide 8.6 million meals for vulnerable people.

Yet, these efforts are in danger of being sidelined as supermarkets look for the most 'efficient' ways to get rid of unwanted food, leading to policies that prioritise anaerobic digestion for renewable energy, rather than food redistribution.

Anaerobic digestion vs. feeding the needy

Tristram Stuart, campaigner and author of Waste: uncovering the global food scandal says most supermarkets' food waste reduction policies see waste sent for anaerobic digestion when other methods, such as redistributing food to those in need, should be prioritised.

‘Supermarkets have in the last few years adopted a wide range of waste reducing policies and have adopted more proactive waste management policies. Most have targets for sending waste to anaerobic digestion, that is the most popular. However, the main purpose of our campaign is to show that there are even better things to do with food than produce renewable energy - mainly, feed people.

Last month, Stuart's charity Feeding the 5000 saw over 5,000 people gather in Trafalgar Square (pictured below)to get a hot, freshly cooked meal for free. The event was meant to showcase just how much perfectly good fruit and vegetables go to waste, much of it simply because it doesn't meet supermarkets' strict cosmetic standards.

‘We picked up about a ton and a half of red cabbages from Lincolnshire that were going to be ploughed back into the field. We could have taken more. The problem is logistics, who pays for that transport?' Stuart says.

 ‘Mainly because of cosmetic standards, some 20 to 40 per cent of produce at farms never reaches supermarket shelves. It is usually fed to livestock or ploughed back in the field,' he adds.

Streamlining food waste policies

‘There is like-for-like 14 times greater redistribution of food from supermarkets in the US compared to the UK. Social welfare is a greater thing and there is a lot more philanthropy. Sure, it is used by governments to release and deflect pressure for proper welfare measures. But it is what we ought to be doing here. It is very, very effective and organisations such as FareShare do not simply dole out food, these are organisations that supply much more than that.'

He says that there are legislative and fiscal incentives used in the US that could be adopted in the UK. Stuart gives the example of the US Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which encourages the donation of food products to nonprofits for distribution to needy individuals. ‘This basically protects retailers legally against people who may get sick. This is a knee jerk excuse companies use for not engaging more with charities and it is by and large a bogus excuse.'

‘There's been back-of-store food redistributed for decades to homeless shelters and the like. But they exist in an ad hoc way, it is down to individual store managers as to whether they say yes,' he adds.

Marks and Spencer's, for example, say it donates any remaining food to local charities on a 'store by store basis' or to FareShare. Any food that is left is recycled - currently 89 per cent is sent to anaerobic digestion units, the remainder is composted, according to an M&S spokeswoman.

Sainsbury's donate the majority of its food waste to charities or anaerobic digestion however aims to send all its food waste to anaerobic digestion by 2012.

Kelvin Cheung, of Food Cycle, says that a supermarket's store by store policy has meant that his charity is at the mercy of individual store managers, and receiving leftover food waste depends on whether the store manager is sympathetic to their cause.

Tristram Stuart believes supermarkets should have a default policy to donate unwanted food to charities. ‘They shouldn't have it as a store by store policy. They should seek out local homeless charities. Supermarkets have a responsibility to ensure that food is consumed. If you fail, you are contributing to malnourishment and global warming - all the things food production is involved in.'

Dr. Richard Swannell, Director of Design & Waste Prevention at government-funded non-profit WRAP says the best way that supermarkets can reduce food waste is to prevent it in the first place. ‘That's where you get the biggest environmental benefits. We are trying to encourage it through the voluntary Courtauld Commitment. If you can't sell it, then distribute it charities such as Fareshare. After that, if it's possible, it should be substituted for animal feed, if it's not safe and suitable for consumption, then it should be sent for anaerobic digestion, finally composting.'

Further information:

Food Cycle

FareShare

Feeding the 5000

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