Meet the people doing something about the tonnes of food wasted daily in the UK
Always worried about when we will next eat, as a race, we’re not renowned for under catering.
We’re not alone: UK household food waste last year was more than 12 million tonnes – shamefully topping an EU table.
Next week, the Jewish Vegetarian Society will screen the film Just Eat It which sets out some shocking statistics on food wastage: 40 per cent of what is raised or grown worldwide is not eaten, and around 20 per cent of all food bought by UK households is binned.
Various Jewish charities are working to redistribute food otherwise destined for landfill or compost. The organisation Gift redistributes almost 25 tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables and 100,000 surplus loaves of bread and challahs annually.
Lara Smallman, director of the JVS, is also on the case: “There are laws around donating food,” says Smallman. “But if you know the rules, you can donate with just one phone call. I managed to donate 650 portions of a cold sandwich lunch from last year’s Harrow Day Limmud. I called Plan Zheroes – who link you with someone to take your food. They connected me with a woman from the church, who arrived and took it away.
“Every communal meal is a celebration so we do tend to go over the top,” she laughs. “That’s fine, if you have a plan to redistribute it, but we’re more focused on the right colour napkins or wine.”
Dietician Hannah Style is also horrified by the tonnes of food thrown out by supermarkets.
“As a resident at the Moishe House in Willesden, I get a reduced rent in return for some part-time help arranging their events. One of our mission statements is to get involved in social action projects.”
Style contacted Conway House, a Kilburn homeless shelter (“they prefer to be known as a residence”) local to the Moishe House. “I said I would like to arrange for some healthy cooking for them and they agreed. I then went to Sainsbury’s in Kilburn High Road and asked if there were any surplus groceries we could use to cook for Conway House. I adapted a model used by Food Cycle which copied one from the US.”
Each second and fourth Thursday of the month, Style and a team of volunteers cook for the Conway House residents. It’s all a bit Ready Steady Cook.
“We find out what has been donated on the day when the Conway House volunteers go to pick it up. Sainsbury’s are amazing, they even give us a trolley to wheel it all in.”
Meals are vegetarian and with Style’s professional knowledge, as healthy as possible. “We cook a soup, a hearty main course and a dessert and there’s a real community spirit. The residents help with preparing veg and laying tables.”
Last year, Style and her group won Mitzvah Day’s All Year Round award for the best sustainable project.
Ilana Taub, the founder of Snact, felt strongly about food waste after completing a Masters in environmental technology at Imperial College. “After my Masters I worked in the finance world from a sustainability angle, but wanted to do more about improving the food system and to tackle food waste.”
In 2013, she and a friend, Michael Minch-Dixon, brainstormed and eventually came up with a dehydrated fruit snack. “It was a good way of dealing with unattractive fruits that supermarkets have rejected. The dehydration also extends the life of the fruit to a year.”
The snacks are made in apple and mango, and apple and raspberry flavours. Some of the fruits they use are supermarket waste, sourced directly from the supermarkets and some sourced from farmers who could not otherwise sell them as they are imperfect looking, or where there is simply too much grown to sell.
“We use only British apples and raspberries but have had to use imported mango puree (which forms only 20 per cent of the apple and mango flavour), but the plan is eventually to use only salvaged mangoes too.
“We initially found farmers via an organisation called the Gleaning Network, which is part of FeedBack – an environmental organisation that campaigns against food waste. Gleaning Network volunteers pick and redistribute fruit and vegetables, which would otherwise be wasted. We now have built our own network of farmers.”
Between 2012 and the end of 2015, the Gleaning Network salvaged 188 tonnes of produce (more than two million portions of fruit and vegetables) that would otherwise have gone into compost or landfill.
“We started off making the snacks ourselves in a kitchen in east London, where we made a few hundred a day, but after a year found a manufacturer who can make up to 80,000 a day. We’re not at that level yet, but plan to be; and we will be launching a new flavour in March, with more flavours, using vegetables and fruits, going forwards.”
Natasha Steele of the Urban Cordial Company also has a background in studying an environmental subject, having just been awarded an MSc in water science at King’s College London.
“I’d always planned to study it, but after graduating from Birmingham (in archaeology) worked for malaria charity, Muso, and travelled. I then worked for Deloitte’s for three years.”
She started making cordials in the summer of 2013 from foraged fruits and herbs.
“I had been growing fruits and vegetables in an allotment. It was surrounded by fruit trees and brambles that otherwise would have gone to waste.”
The plan had not been to make cordials professionally. “I made the first batch to take to a dinner party. I’m terrible at jam, so I tried cordials. The first was elderflower from a Googled recipe.”
It went down so well, she decided to try to sell it and emailed 10 farmers’ markets. “Only one replied, asking for samples, but it wasn’t elderflower season, so I looked around for what I could use and made blackberry and lavender; redcurrant and rosemary and a few other flavours I don’t sell now.”
When 250 bottles sold out in three market sessions she realised she had something. “It was an experiment, but in 2014, when I sold 1,000 bottles in 11 weeks, I decided to take it further.”
Her cordials also use fruits that otherwise would be binned.
“One farmer gave me 200kg of quinces which he said would otherwise go to rot, and I buy second-class strawberries and raspberries which farmers can also do nothing with as supermarkets will not buy them. Many farms leave rhubarb that is even scratched in the fields to rot as they cannot sell it. It’s horrible to see all that fruit wasted. Tonnes of raspberries are thrown away but they are absolutely delicious. We eat a considerable percentage of our raspberries each year as they’re so good.
“I make as much as I can from the ingredients I get. Once the ingredients are gone, they’re gone,” says Steele, who makes the cordials in the kitchen of her parents’ Edgware home but hopes to move to a commercial kitchen soon.
Steele’s cordials have found their own niche market. “Bars and restaurants are using them in cocktails,” she says. “When two-star Michelin restaurant The Ledbury contacted me to ask me to supply them I was like ‘Shut the front door’ I was so excited!”
Tonight might be the time to think about how to use up those browning bananas or bendy carrots instead of consigning them to the bin.