Hate food waste? Then join the war

The Sunday Telegraph - - Features -

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

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