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Hunger and Waste: how to get more food to the fork

Freshness diminishes as food miles increase, and vast amounts of food are lost during processing, packing, transit and retail. Not all makes it out of the field, and a great deal doesn’t make it to the fork.

Manchester’s Royal Exchange recently hosted ‘Hunger for Trade’, “an international performing arts response to the global food crisis” featuring four specially-commissioned plays (see a review here). The audience was greeted by the aesthetic onslaught of an exhibition room piled high with ‘surplus’ food (loaned by FareShare). By the final day, the moulding mounds lent an authentic pungency of ageing turnips.  Walls were plastered with flattened cereal and crisp packets, and a fridge gaped open with limp produce and ‘ready’ meals.

It was a curated version of the archetypal image of food waste: the mountains of bread and avalanches of fruit featured in a growing slew of documentary films such as Just Eat It and Taste the Waste. The ethical imperative to reduce food waste is prompting preventative solutions from households to businesses: a Swiss restaurant is fining diners for not clearing their plates, and the Scottish government is piloting a programme to revive the doggy-bag.

The realisation of the extent of global food waste has prompted efforts to intercept it even after it has entered the ‘waste stream’. 36% of biodegradable waste is now composted across Manchester. But why compost food that’s still perfectly good as, well, food?

FareShare Greater Manchester works to feeds people with ‘surplus’ food before it enters the waste stream. It redistributes food rejected for retail to growing numbers of organisations who feed hungry people (evident in the burgeoning numbers of people seeking food bank assistance). Given the pressure on agricultural resources to produce food and arguments that this must increase to feed a growing population, these efforts are vital (see for example, John Beddington’s Foresight report).

Reverting food from ‘bin’ to ‘fork’ involves a reengagement of the senses; a resistance to disgust, even. As Derek, a FareShare Greater Manchester staff member told me, volunteers are trained to overcome their fears of handling produce that’s past its best (although crates of out-of-date but still-green bananas are not an uncommon sight at FareShare HQ). Derek grabs a rotting onion and squeezes it- “Come on- what’s the worst it can do? Your hands are covered in germs anyway”, he tells volunteers.

Lending a hardy hand at the weekly FoodCycle hub cooking session in Longsight, I was tasked to sort through a huge pile of grapes, mangoes and pears donated by local businesses who would otherwise have thrown them away. It was a lesson in discernment to work out what was merely cosmetic damage and what would offend taste buds (and digestive systems).

Our senses and abilities to judge food’s edibility are dulled by date-labelling; how can the perfume of a swede’s ripeness penetrate its polythene shrink-wrapping? Such confusion is evidenced in my own household by debates over whether the yellowing brussels sprouts at the bottom of the veg box should go to cook pot or compost.

Similar negotiations are underway at the level of our municipal waste management. A planning application is underway to install an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant at New Smithfield Market. AD is used worldwide, often at small scale to turn food waste and farm slurry into biogas, fostering energy independence.

The industrial-scale proposal for New Smithfield Market includes using a combined heat and power (CHP) engines to turn bio-methane into 499KW of electricity, enough to power over 6000 homes. AD is seen as a way to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill, where it rots to produce the greenhouse gas methane. However, sceptics argue that it is an inefficient way of recovering the energy used to produce food in the first place, and that laws should be changed to allow practices such as feeding food waste to pigs.

Questions also arise over the large load of food waste required by such plants, which may require importing (with attendant carbon emissions and safety concerns), and the risks of poor odour control and leakage in urban environments. Campaign organisation This Is Rubbish argue for tackling the causes of food waste rather than relying on schemes to divert it.

Humans have long found solutions for using food that’s past its peak of perfection. There has been something of a revival in preserving, for example. FareShare/EMERGE 3Rs have set up a project to turn food gluts into jams and chutneys, some of which they have successfully sold at their city-centre 3Rs Pop-Up Shop.  The illusion of cheap, abundant food sustained by supermarketing has turned people away from using offal and offcuts but projects such as Real Food Wythenshawe are attempting to re-educate the public into reducing household food waste.

Volunteering for various food waste redistribution schemes and past periods of ‘dumpster diving’ have provided an education in gastronomic aesthetics. While I can’t afford my taste for Amore yogurts when perfectly stacked on the supermarket shelf, that taste is tested when rooting through a supermarket bin to find the wasted pots spilling all over the chucked melons.

It’s a short journey from shelf to bin, from commodity to chaos, and we would do well to question this transition. The Real Junk Food Project is a pioneering attempt by young Leeds chefs to bypass food sales regulations with a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ system to sell meals created from intercepted food ‘waste’. The project is coming to Manchester; keep your eyes peeled!

It’s easy to understand the dismay of activists with one eye on mountains of rejected food and the other on millions of hungry bellies. Cooking and sharing food are vital means for families to express love and feel fulfilled, which is undermined by the experience of food insecurity as experienced by increasing numbers of people. Included in this is the dignity of being able to choose one’s diet; some argue that food banks and other such redistribution schemes threaten such dignity.

While redistributing their surpluses to these programmes allows food companies to reduce their waste and engage with communities, this doesn’t tackle the root causes of food poverty and waste. Tackling the mountain requires advocating for food policy that prevents these threats to social justice and environmental sustainability. But for households, retailers and caterers, Love Food Hate Waste and WRAP are good places to start.

Main image used courtesy of Fly Davis.