Hate food waste? Then join the war
Lindsay Boswell, the chief executive of the food waste charity FareShare, says his cause is not one where people are afraid to show their support. “I have never met anybody who simply mildly objects to it,” Boswell says while marching through the vast warehouse in Deptford, south-east London, from where the charity distributes food. “Everybody always tells me that they ‘hate’ food waste.”
We all do, don’t we? We announce it to our children over breakfast and to friends across the dinner table in the strongest possible terms. And yet, in spite of how we all proclaim to feel, I stand here surrounded by mountains of boxes containing unwanted produce of every description.
There are whole industrial freezers filled with meat; enough cereal to feed breakfast to an entire borough of primary schools; 12kg boxes of butter piled from floor to ceiling; baby milk bottles; a veritable ocean of pasta sauce; tray upon tray of fruit and vegetables and so many plastic-sealed packets of fish they could comprise several North Sea shoals.
This perfectly good food (posh even, with olives, quail eggs and hot-smoked salmon chunks befitting any middleclass fridge amid the hoard) was deemed surplus to society’s requirements long before it ever even made it to the supermarket shelves, usually as a result of over-ordering unnecessary stock.
Were it not for the work of FareShare – one of three charities which the Telegraph has chosen for this year’s Christmas appeal, which launches this weekend, it would have been ground down into animal feed; burnt in biomass incinerators or simply dumped in landfill.
The charity estimates at present in Britain we waste 400,000 tons of food a year in this manner, a figure that does not take into account household food waste, which brings it up to a mammoth 1.9million tons.
At the same time an estimated 8.4million people across the country are suffering food poverty – which is classed as being unable to obtain properly healthy food.
For 57-year-old Boswell, a former major in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who served in Northern Ireland, Uganda and Beirut and took over FareShare seven years ago, this dichotomy is a damning indictment on the way we live today. Tackling the scale of this country’s food waste is his new war. “As a society in this context we have completely lost our moral compass,” he says. “For most of us food has become so plentiful that we have just taken it for granted. We’ve found ourselves in a place where seasonality doesn’t exist. We have totally lost the ‘waste not, want not’ attitude of could feed 35 children in a breakfast club for one week, ensuring they all have the opportunity to start the day on a full stomach could allow three vans to deliver surplus in-date food to 18 local charities could run one walk-in refrigeration unit for one week could train eight regular volunteers in food safety and handling could feed 500 isolated people a full Christmas dinner previous generations and the ability to simply make do.”
FareShare was established 23 years ago to address this appalling waste and redistribute the food to the neediest in society before it is dumped. At present the charity operates from 21 distribution centres – like the one at which we meet in Deptford – nationwide.
Last year it redistributed 13,552 tons of food to 7,000 front-line charities, including homeless and domestic violence shelters, breakfast and lunch clubs for young and old, mental health clinics, drink and drug rehabilitation centres and countless other causes.
Currently, the charity estimates it feeds a staggering 500,000 vulnerable people nationwide every week. At the same time, FareShare saves the charities it works with – many of whom are already plugging shortfalls in local authority funding – £30million a year.
To understand the process and waste of the modern day food chain one must begin with us, the consumer, and our demand for whatever we want, whenever we want it. This means supermarkets aim for the very highest margins in their orders and suppliers over-produce to meet the stipulations in their contracts. Britain already boasts perhaps the most sophisticated food industry in the world. Boswell describes the way the system operates as “clinically efficient”. The miscalculated sums are slight, but cause wastage on an enormous scale.
Boswell gives the example of one of the 400 companies FareShare currently works with, the juice manufacturer, Gerber. When approached by the charity, Gerber had first assured it there was no waste at all and after investigating further, discovered only 0.04per cent of its product was surplus to requirements. “To them it was invisible,” Boswell says. “But to us it was 300,000 litres a year.”
Gerber now transports the juice to whichever FareShare depot has the greatest need, where the juice creates a million servings per annum (and is particularly important as a way of ensuring homeless people are getting extra nutrients and vitamins).
“We ask the food industry to bear the cost of getting it to us,” Boswell says. “What we will then do with our amazing army of volunteers is get it to charities.”
At the Deptford depot I see this remarkable production line for myself. That morning trucks from Tesco and Asda have deposited whole container loads of unwanted food, which are then quickly sorted by the charity’s volunteers, of whom it has around 1,000 across Britain. From this centre alone last year FareShare redistributed 1,263 tons of food.
Veronica Hendry, a 56-year-old former lecturer in design at University of the Arts London, is one of those who works to allocate the food to the charities on her list. Beneficiary organisations stipulate what specific items they are after – this is double-checked before the deliveries go out. The pickers on the factory floor then box up the food into crates and it is driven out to charities in FareShare’s fleet of vans.
“Sometimes you just stop to look at all this food and realise how huge this waste is,” Hendry says. “What upsets me the most is the thought somebody cannot feed a healthy meal to an elderly parent or child. That is simply a right that everybody should have.”
More than 60 per cent of the produce that comes to FareShare is fresh and often has only a few days left before it is out of date. That means the charity needs to work at impressive speed to redistribute as much food as possible in time.
“We really have to pedal hard to make sure it isn’t wasted,” Boswell says. “I have seen volunteers burst into tears when we aren’t able to get it out. But sometimes you just have too much of one thing and not enough time.”
At present FareShare manages to redistribute just 5per cent of the overall food wasted in Britain every year. In France, they manage 10 times more than that, and Boswell says if the charity expands its redistribution network, this would bring huge gains to society as a whole.
“We have got the infrastructure and foundations to be able to do it in the UK,” he says. “The additional number of charities we would get the food to and the savings this would deliver to them would make leftovers second only to the National Lottery in terms of value to society.”
We need a new national conversation on food waste, he admits, but in the meantime the supply chain he has helped establish could do so much more. “The bit that really motivates me isn’t the size of what we are doing now but where we could get to.”
‘Food has become so plentiful that we have just taken it for granted’
Moving mountains: Lindsay Boswell says FareShare feeds 500,000 each week
Volunteer army: Veronica Hendry works to ensure food is allocated to charities