The UK wastes an estimated 10 million tonnes of food each year, 60% of which is avoidable.
It’s a clear example of an ocean composed of a thousand drops: all the unsold cafe goods thrown away at the end of the day, the rejected packed lunches, the forgotten milk at the back of the fridge. Individually insignificant, but the national cost of throwing away so much edible food is enormous – £17 billion a year, to be precise.
And the costs aren’t only financial: the waste generates 19m tonnes of greenhouse gases, increases the amount of packaging going in the bin and the growth in worldwide consumption drives food prices up. It’s clear that reducing food waste is at the heart of sustainable living. But how do we tackle this issue?
Already, the UK has seen some progress. Supermarkets have come under fire for throwing away food after statistics revealed the extent of the problem (the ugly vegetable debacle comes to mind), and have adapted their approach accordingly as the tide of public opinion shifts. The amount of leftover food we are now redistributing increases year on year, and recently Tesco announced their plans to remove ‘best before’ dates from 70% of fruit and vegetables, a label that is thought to confuse many consumers into throwing away food prematurely in the belief that it’s no longer edible.
But while the major corporations take steps towards a less wasteful industry, there are even more initiatives emerging at the level of local communities. The growing public awareness of these issues has prompted the start of a multitude of food waste schemes across the country, many of which take the leftover food from nearby supermarkets and redistribute it.
Keen to single-handedly help use up leftover food, I went to Tang Hall Community Centre in York to explore one such scheme, the YourCafe initiative.
Use your leftover change for something useful for once
YourCafe prepares meals from surplus food donated by shops in York (including some big names such as Greggs, Morrisons, and Tesco) and serves it to locals on a pay-as-you-feel basis. It was started in 2015 by resident Margaret Hattam. Inspired by the Real Junk Food Project, she decided to follow its lead in York.
“It was difficult to start approaching businesses, but within six months we had gained interest from the media,” she says, simultaneously coordinating a multitude of volunteers and visitors arriving for their three-course meal. Each week volunteers set up a cafe in the community centre and prepare a menu with a variety of options.
In addition to this, they have a pop-up shop where anyone can fill up their bags with a huge array of fruit, vegetables, bread and whatever food was delivered that week: a testament to the sheer volume of food in need of redistribution.
Although the overarching aim of YourCafe is to tackle overwhelming surplus food, as a community-driven initiative there is a keen focus on the benefits to the residents. Kath, a local who has volunteered for YourCafe for 3 years, says “the cafe facilitates a healthy diet. Lots of the food that is delivered is fresh fruit and vegetables, and we’re providing healthy meals.”
It’s a popular scheme, and the mix of people settling at the tables reveals an additional advantage to the cafe setup. “The informal, friendly atmosphere means you end up talking to new people… of different age groups.” Students drawn in by the promise of almost-free food, elderly interested in interacting with new people and locals keen to offer their skills in preparing food all mingle together.
Judging by the people waiting for food, it’s clear that to many, the opportunity to socialise is almost as important as the food waste issue itself. Sophie, a university student volunteer, describes YourCafe as the “perfect opportunity to get involved in the local community – and get lots of free food!” The initiative provides students and the unemployed with a chance to develop personal and professional skills and gain a different kind of experience.
Margaret is keen for more students to get involved and arranges regular pop-up stalls at the local University of York giving away free food, encouraging people to “Fill Bellies Not Bins.” In the last few weeks the stall has run out of food early.
Despite the success of the initiative, there is still more surplus food delivered than the community centre can redistribute. In addition to this, raising awareness of YourCafe and similar schemes has proved to be a struggle. There is undeniably a huge benefit to such a scheme to people hoping to cut food costs: struggling students trying to get by on maintenance loans that are more like the suggestion of money (pasta every day sound familiar to anyone else?), underprivileged locals and those who struggle to cook healthy meals for themselves.
However, many people are unaware of the initiatives taking place around them, and supermarkets do little to advertise where their leftover food is going. Raising awareness is crucial to find more people to make use of the surplus food.
Local food waste schemes like YourCafe are a curious contradiction in aims: Margaret Hattam says the popularity of the cafe is definitely growing, but at the same time continuation of the initiative means that there is still sufficient leftover edible food from supermarkets to prepare three-course meals for a community hall full of people, set up a shop and give out tables of food on the local campus.
“We want to go out of business,” she says, hoping that one day there won’t be enough food waste generated to keep a cafe running. To confront the food waste issue as a society, we have to use up more so we can use up less.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals have waste reduction and resource maximisation at their heart.
YourCafe is indicative of a broader trend of community schemes and charity campaigns to directly deal with surplus food. A quick search for initiatives brings up an overwhelming array of projects: nationally, FareShare and Love Food Hate Waste campaign to deal with leftovers. Food waste cafes are popping up across the country in a battle to feed people and apparently also to come up with the punniest name: Refusedurham, Cafe Surplus and the Bristol Skipchen to name a few. The apps Olio and Too Good to Go are experiencing a surge in popularity and helping redistribute at the local level.
There’s no doubt that the public is increasingly calling upon businesses to adopt a more sustainable approach. Like the recent surge in protests at the use of plastic straws, it appears that the tide of opinión is instrumental in the rise of food waste initiatives. Whether this will translate to more extensive institutional change, only time will tell.