Redistributing food waste

Researchers for WRAP estimate that the UK currently produces 1.9 million tonnes of waste each year from the grocery supply chain[1].  Of this, about 56% (1.1. million tonnes) can be considered avoidable food waste.  Wrap argues that after changing processes to reduce the amount of food becoming surplus, redistribution of surplus food to people is the most desirable option for food waste prevention.  They estimate that about 18% is currently redistributed, with food from the retail sector accounting for about five percent of the total volume of redistributed food and the remainder coming from manufacturing. The WRAP report also considers that at least half of all the surplus could be considered ‘readily redistributable’,  while the rest is more challenging because of its shorter life or need for repackaging.  The aim is to increase the volume of surplus food that is redistributed by about four times the current amount (from 47,000 tonnes to 185,000 tonnes); to an equivalent of approximately 360 million meals per year by 2025.  Achieving this goal will involve a doubling of the amount of food that is redistributed from retail to consumers. One of the recommendations of the report is the development of improved guidance and partnership tools that would facilitate food redistribution.

Before we can develop better tools and guidance, I felt a bit of a survey of what is currently being done would be helpful.  Rather than a quantitative survey on numbers of organisations, however, I have developed descriptions of different methods and forms that are being taken by different groups to redistribute food.  For each category, there are listed some example organisations, but please know that for many of these categories there are a number of further groups that could have been identified.   Those who are included are for illustrative purposes only.  Also, this list draws primarily on UK-based organisations, but I am also aware of some different groups working in other countries. The different types of organisation that I have identified are as follows:

  • Redistributor to organisation (e.g., FareShare, Plan Zheroes)Organisations who collect surplus food and then redistribute it via an ordering system to smaller community groups who then redistribute it to eaters as either a meal or as food to take home. Community-based groups often have a particular constituency that they serve, and as such, some people may not feel that this food is available to them. Because of the costs of doing redistribution, smaller organisations that use this service often pay a fee.
  • Community organisation café. These may be community groups who provide a free, pay-as-you-feel, or low-cost meals to eaters. Examples include the Real Junk Food Projects (RJFP) located in many cities, Food Hall in Sheffield.  Some of these cafés target specific groups while others are open to all eaters.  Some are designed to facilitate community belonging and combat loneliness by building in the commensurate qualities of food. Others enable community cooking while other operate on a model that is closer to that of a restaurant. In this general model, food must be eaten within the space of the café and is not typically taken for home cooking.
  • Social Supermarkets/Community shops. Like the café model, food may be offered at a low-cost, pay-as-you-feel or free basis.  For example, Community Shop is a resale outlet that targets those who receive benefits and live in a highly deprived postcode, and eaters must apply to become a member.  They target those who are just above food crisis.  RJFP Sheffield also operates a limited hours community shop on a pay-as-you-feel basis that is open to anyone. Edlington Community Organisation (ECO) in Doncaster offers a free surplus food collection table that runs for two hours on two days a week. On one of those days they also run a community food bank, but the surplus food is available alongside the food parcel and also to those who do not receive a parcel.  ECO source their food from the local Tesco via the FareShare Food Cloud. Trials with the community food tables and shops indicate there is much demand for this form of distribution, but that there is the potential for resentment to build as well.  One organisation reported stories of people queueing before opening and then first arrive-ers taking all the originally higher value food leaving little for those who arrive later. Experienced confirmed by evidence of users of another organisation. This phenomenon can also be witnessed when food is first placed on the discount shelves at the supermarket or when goods go on sale on Black Friday.  Not only does this risk alienation of customers who “missed out” but it also puts staff in an awkward position of having to monitor taking or field complaints.
  • Digital redistributor to an organisation (e.g., FareShare Food Cloud or Neighbourly Marks and Spencer). Recently some organisations have begun utilising mobile apps to connect community organisations with local food stores, thereby cutting out their role as interlocutor and reducing costs for those community organisations. The downside is that partner suppliers tend to designate pick-up times that are late in the day, and someone from the organisation must collect the food in their own vehicle and return it to the organisation’s storage space in order to comply with food standards. This is a process that can create quite a burden for the community worker who must collect the food at the end of an already busy day. The amount of food that can be taken and which foods are taken also depends upon the size of the car the collector owns and the room available for the food to be stored while it is waiting to be redistributed the next day. These constrains, of course also limit how much food a store can redistribute.
  • Digital point-to-point. There are also some digital initiatives that seek to link eaters directly with surplus food such as OLIO, which operates in a similar manner to freecycle, where anyone can give food away including restaurants and home cooks.  Here the giver uploads a photo of the available food and people request to have it, and then you arrange to meet to make the swap.  In a few locations, there are drop boxes, where you can arrange to leave the food labelled for your eater, who then picks it up at their convenience.  Food exchanged via the drop box way can only be pre-packed food that is not perishable. The point-to-point nature means exchanges of some food requires copresence and can be inconvenient.
  • Community refrigerators. The community refrigerator is an idea that has been trialed by people in Germany, Spain, and Columbia and recently in the UK in London and Frome, Summerset. There may be other locations as well.  The idea is to facilitate the exchange of fresh food in a way that does not require those exchanging food to be from any particular group, nor does it demand co-presence for the exchange to occur.  The refrigerator requires a team willing to keep it clean and to dispose of uncollected food. These initiatives have been difficult to implement because of fears around food hygiene and legal risk and the costs in both time and money to address the practical/monitoring issues.  These schemes tend to operate on a model where people drop, and others collect.  Raw meat, eggs, and fish are not to be donated.  There is a login/logout system in the Frome Community Refridgerator, but this hand was written. As such, people must travel to the fridge to discover what is in it, which may, like the shop put off return customers.

All of the different models have advantages and disadvantages associated with them. Taken together, all the models facilitate food distribution to different types of eaters. There is merit in considering a basket of interventions as each achieves different, but often complementary, outcomes.   The easiest way to access food is via an approach that does not require both parties to meet at a specific location within a narrow time window. The demands of co-presence make direct exchange less convenient for those who wish to receive and in some cases exchange food.  This inconvenience is a drawback of both the digital models discussed above. The community shops also carry the potential for alienating or discouraging those who may want to try to source surplus food because of the way that scarcity and value are produced within the time-constrained shop format. The community refrigerators offer some scope for extending the life of food that is shared, but as the community shop model, one does not know what will be available until arriving at the exchange point and they require monitoring. While this post raises some of the practical, material and logistical issues in redistribution, currently, there is relatively little-coordinated discussion around the contextual problems of distribution at all points along the food surplus chain.

There has also been recent debate about who should be the eaters of surplus food. Many of the redistribution organisations target low-income eaters specifically in their efforts.  Caraher and Furey have jointly published a paper under the Food Research Collaboration umbrella on this topic. They argue that diverting surplus food to poor people is not the solution to food poverty. And in that statement they are right, I share the belief that food poverty can only be solved by changing our welfare and economic system such that food is recognised as a right rather than as a private commodity to be purchased. They also point out some further drawbacks to relying on surplus food as the solution to food poverty that includes, but is not limited to such things as insecurity in the supply chain, the absolving of government of any role in addressing the issue, and may discourage efforts to reconfigure the supply chain to reduce surplus.

I would add to their list the creation of a social distinction more generally that is both discursive and performative.  By talking about surplus food as food for those who are poor, we also make surplus food poor peoples’ food (something Caraher and Furey also point out).  I would elaborate this in the following way.  This construction lets those who are not poor off the hook for their role in shaping the conditions by which food becomes surplus in the first instance (e.g., rejecting wonky veg or prioritising the visual aspects of food). It also has the potential to communicate to people that surplus food is not food that people who are well-off eat and as such if one is trying to perform a more affluent identity, surplus food would not be on the menu.  The potential, of course, is that those who are poor, but not destitute will eschew surplus food if they can afford to in order to be more aligned with the middle class.

I agree that making food available to those who are hungry now is important because there are people who are hungry right now, even in this country that is supposedly rich.  I also agree that it is wrong to waste food just because it is surplus.  I also applaud the work of those trying to redistribute food, but as we do so I think it is also important to widen out the discourse around who is responsible for surplus food.  In addition to industry continuing to work to reduce food surpluses (which is different to efficiency) and while there is surplus food, we need to work to cast it also as food that we should all try to incorporate into our foodways as some organisations are attempting to do.

At present, there are a number of organisations making efforts to redistribute food in ways that aim to develop a narrative that surplus food is for everyone.  Their efforts, however, do tend to involve some replication of a marketised model, whereby this food is given value through some exchange of money or time, whether that be by subscription to a service or by paying-as-you-feel.  Each reinforces the commodity value of food, albeit in different ways.  I do not have a solution to this dilemma–yet.  I would argue, however, that as we search for solutions to both food poverty and food surplus, we must pay attention to the multiple circuits of meaning of which food becomes part.  We must consider how food is not just caught up in material nets of practice and affordances, but also gets enmeshed in discursive nets that can help produce and reproduce social distinctions and political/economic nets that commodify and seek profits. Making surplus food available to all must also consider how these different nets separate us into different groups because overcoming those separations are how we will all be able to eat at the same table.

[1] The Wrap report referenced in this section is Parfitt J, S Woodham, E Swan, T Castella, and A Parry (2016) Quantification of food surplus, waste and related materials in the grocery supply chain.  WRAP. ISBN: 978-1-84405-473-2.

I would like to thank the various organisations who have spoken to me so openly about the issues they face with regard to food redistribution.

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