Hilary Hamer lives in the East Riding, is married and has two grown up sons. She has been involved in producing, cooking and enjoying food since childhood with an enduring interest in how food is produced and where it comes from. Initially trained as a food scientist with experience gained in the dairy, cake and fish industries, she is passionate about creating a changed food system that works better for our planetary and human health.
The article was originally published at the Food4Hull website in May 2016.
Most of us are aware that we waste food – we try not to but we do. My problem is with stale bread and overripe bananas. I can’t help it but there is only so much bread pudding, breadcrumbs, bread and butter pudding and baked bananas, banana loaf – you get the idea – my family and I can eat. Actually my family is reduced in size as two of the main eaters have left home. What do I do? I mostly bake my own bread which means we eat too much of it – but it’s good – and I’ve stopped buying bananas except in occasional momentary lapses when I’m hungry and I’ll see one somewhere just that perfect combination of green at the tip and yellow. And buy it and eat it.
Those of us who go to the supermarkets are rightly horrified to imagine the quantity of perfectly edible food that is mostly reduced at the end of the day and then (although we may not think too hard about it), vanishes before the next day’s opening. Where does it go? What happens to it?
These are all good questions to ask. The food industry – and this broad term can be taken to cover every aspect from agronomy to waste treatment plants – has begun to look much more closely at the ways and identify the hotspots in the chain that waste is occurring. All waste equals cost – using up precious resources such as water, energy, raw materials, labour, time – the same amount that we eat – embedded in the food we buy – has also gone into that packet or bag or container that goes in the bin.
The EU (yes sorry) has taken steps to address the huge and complex issues. How do you measure it? How reliable are the figures? Different countries take different approaches. It’s difficult. Our own House of Lords published a report in 2014 (in the UK we waste about £15 million every year) and this is worth reading if you are interested. See it at http://www.publications.parliament.uk
There are many hungry people in the UK. We see food that might be perfectly edible thrown away. Organisations to take this ‘surplus’ food have emerged. For example, a big Fareshare warehouse works hard in Hull to both receive, sort and redistribute to those who can accept it. But the logistics and physical characteristics of food handling in bulk are complicated. The Real Junk Food project http://therealjunkfoodproject.org/ set up in Leeds by two passionate chefs (who spoke at the 3rd Greenshare conference in 2015 https://www.facebook.com/greensharehullandeastriding/) has created a mechanism where people actually get fed real meals by food that the retailers no longer have a use for.
I’ve been offered the chance to sign up for ‘surplus food’ redistribution via one of the big retailers. It requires me to be ready and able to collect when the text message arrives. Where do I take it? How much might it be? Do I (personally as Food4Hull) want to accept this responsibility? From the chat I had with the representative he was nigh on desperate to find charities willing to accept it. And where are the consumers and who might they be? And would the food be something they are happy to eat. We all have a choice – this often gets lost in the discussion of ‘they – whoever ‘they’ are – must be fed’. And why should those who are less fortunate – for whatever reason – get food that no-one else wants? That’s a whole other issue and I’ll cover food poverty in my next blog.
My own view, for this blog represents my own opinions, is that the retailers (who control a vast percentage of our food supply) and where many/most of the population shop, could start to make and sell less food. Yes, this might mean empty shelves more often. Would that matter?
There is rumour that the new entrants to our retail market – by which I mean the discounters – are beginning to do this (as has the reduction in the bogoff offers). Offer less, make it more seasonal – wearily I despair of the fresh strawberries in December – and make us either buy less or buy a more varied and adventurous diet.
A letter in yesterday’s Sunday Times responding to a previous letter about I million eggs ‘thrown out’ every day (thought to be in part due to the increasing demand of ‘free-range’ eggs), suggested that attempting to reduce this* “would often result in shortages”.
These consequences (known and unknown) would have to be weighed against the reduction in waste. And who would make that decision?
So as individuals, take personal responsibility to reduce your own food waste. Why not ask about food waste policy where you work? What happens to the less that tempting sandwiches that gets offered at the over-catered for ‘lunchtime’ meetings? And finally what happens to the inedible food waste we all encounter – teabags, coffee grounds, fruit peelings – in offices/factories/businesses? Get interested. It’s important. Food deserves our respect. Someone, somewhere has got it to our plate. What are you going to do about it?
*in fact a tiny percentage of the 33 million consumed every day www.egginfo.co.uk