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Q&A: Lucy Danger, EMERGE chief executive

Lucy Danger is chief executive of social enterprise EMERGE (East Manchester Environment and Resources Group Emerge) and set up the Greater Manchester hub of national charity FareShare. Danger has taken a lead in setting up the Greater Manchester Low Carbon Hub’s Food Task Group.


Tell us about EMERGE – how does the organisation work?

EMERGE started in 1996 as a community waste campaign, a voluntary scheme taking on household recycling. We grew from there, set up as a social enterprise in 1998, and by the end of the 90s we were doing 62,000 homes, doing the full range of dry recyclables.

We also developed commercial recycling services. To use a food pun, that’s our bread and butter today. We do everything a business would want, from food waste collection to anything hazardous.

It’s fair to say we’ve been quite progressive, we’ve always been at the cutting edge of trying to push sustainable waste management and resource efficiency in Greater Manchester.


How did FareShare develop in Greater Manchester?

In 2008 one of our board members, a community affairs representative for Kelloggs, suggested I meet with FareShare. It transpired that the charity was actively looking for an operating partner – the organisation operates like a franchise.

Their strapline is ‘fighting hunger, tackling food waste’. But it’s not even really food waste, it’s surplus food. Even though the logistical side of the food supply chain is extremely efficient in the UK, there’s still a dislocation between supply and demand, and that’s how food surplus arises.

According to WRAP, there are around 400,000 tonnes of surplus food in the UK supply chain. Some of my more radical colleagues think the issue is capitalism, that the problem is fundamentally how we manage and transport food. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but I’m not sure there’s very much appetite for changing away from a capitalist society at the current time!

At the moment we’ve got a food supply chain that has issues, supply and demand doesn’t always marry up. So much of what consumers want is based on the weather, or events like the World Cup. The demand for burgers, for instance, goes up and down dramatically depending on whether people are having BBQs!

What FareShare is trying to do is rescue that surplus in-date food and redistribute it to organisations and charities (such as breakfast clubs for disadvantaged children, homeless hostels, community cafes and women’s refuges) who in turn help those in greatest need, across Greater Manchester.

The food we’re accepting for redistribution is not all healthy and nutritious, sadly. There’s some debate going on within FareShare right now about whether we should just distribute whatever we can rescue, or take a more active and engaged role in a nutritious offering to organisations.


What’s your view?

I tend towards the latter. Certainly in terms of trying to develop a more sustainable financial model to operate FareShare on, it’s very difficult if what we’re offering groups is [only] chocolate and fizzy drinks. Because the groups we distribute to are trying to help because out of the situation their beneficiaries are in, where possible signposting them to other services and supporting them out of poverty.

Our priority is to work with those kinds of organisations, not only food banks which are doing crisis interventions – but of course that’s really important as well, as a short term ‘sticking plaster’.


In terms of the kinds of food that end up as surplus, does that tend to be more fresh foods or longer-life products?

There’s a lot of fresh food, and we’re seeing more and more chilled products coming through now that Tesco and Asda are much more on board. So there’s a real pressure on our ability to refrigerate. We operate our FareShare franchise within a very strict regime of policies and procedures, to make sure no one gets poisoned and that brands are protected and managed appropriately Food safety is of a very high priority.

Our plan is, in line with FareShare UK’s plans to access more of the surplus food in the UK food industry, to increase the amount of food we manage for Greater Manchester, from the current 600 tonnes per year (which contributes to around 1.2million meals for the 180 organisations we supported last year) to 3600 tonnes. We are actively seeking partners in every borough to work with us on our five-year growth plan, from Housing Associations and schools to councils, agencies and community sector groups of all types.

EMERGE also works nationally with the Community Wood Recycling Project, taking construction wood waste and upcycling it into funky tables and garden furniture. One of the central themes across EMERGE and FareShare is that we engage people as volunteers wherever possible, offering them ‘back to work’ and training experience.

For FareShare particularly, we’re pretty dependent on volunteers. Considering that the food industry represents an estimated 12% of the North West GDP, I believe we provide a useful springboard for people who have perhaps been unemployed for quite a long time. After working with us, they’re better placed to go and work in the food industry.


What is your role in connection to the GM Low Carbon Hub?

I was invited to be part of the Sustainable Consumption and Production themed board, a sub-group of the Low Carbon Hub. I wanted to get some representation from across the boroughs, people and organisations that were doing some cutting edge work around food, and who would be willing and able to work with others in a collaborative way.

Because that’s key: being willing to sometimes compromise around some of the issues. I’m a pragmatist, I think to get to a point where we can take a wider message out to the GM community, there have to be some compromises – even if that’s just that we decide to work on these priorities now, and those later.

Those involved currently, by invitation, are: independent food researcher Dr Debbie Ellen; the Bury-based Incredible Edible initiative; Vincent Walsh from the Biospheric Foundation; Jemma Grimes from Feeding Stockport; Amanda Donnelly [Food for Life]; Anne Burns [Oldham School Catering]; Barnaby Fryer, Rochdale MBC; Claire Hoolohan Manchester University; Julie Holt Oldham Council’s Food Team; Kate Campbell from Public Health, Trafford; Lindsey Laidlaw, Manchester City Council’s Food Futures; Todd Holden, Carbon Director at Manchester Solutions; Mark Atherton, Sustainability Lead for the Low Carbon Hub and latterly, Joanne Sclater Manchester City Council, Business Manager for New Smithfield Market; Charlie Spring, who’s studying food waste and communities at Salford University; and Mark Stein from Steady State, a local economic think tank.

During our first year, Todd Holden commissioned a report on Food Printing for Greater Manchester, funded through the ERDF ESTA Project. The report provides insights, and a lens through which to look at food from a carbon perspective. It identifies, for example, that household refrigeration has a pretty massive carbon impact. It raises awareness of what the carbon issues around food are, and helps us figure out what we can realistically do if we want to reduce our impacts.


What other issues were brought to light by the report?

One of the big problems confirmed is food waste produced in the home. That helps us consider whether the Low Carbon Hub could, for example, be talking to WRAP and Love Food Hate Waste about what more can be done in GM to encourage people to waste less food.

Another significant impact is to do with eating meat, drawing attention to the fact that it takes a lot more resources to produce meat for people to eat. If people could just eat a little less meat, there’d be a lot less carbon (and therefore environmental) impact. The report has helped us clarify the science and the numbers behind that.


Do you plan to launch public awareness-raising campaigns in the future?

The Low Carbon Hub has had a fundamental review of its structure and how it operates; and the SCP was recently disbanded. So we hope to move our food agenda forwards by establishing the ‘Greater Manchester Sustainable Food Alliance’ (working title).

In the first instance we’ll be seeking endorsements from the LCH, AGMA, each of the local authorities and also public health officers. We will attempt to join things up across GM and possibly then move towards public campaigns, depending on their potential value.