War on Waste: How Food Rescue Charities Are Fighting Food Waste
The recent ABC television series War on Waste aired last month, and suddenly everyone is talking about waste. Which, in my view, is a good thing. A great thing! As it should be ;) The more conversations we have around waste, the better.
I watched the series myself and thought it was well made, informative and motivational. It did a great job of addressing the problems. The problems need talking about, definitely. But I felt it only touched on the solutions. Which, maybe, was a missed opportunity. In my view, there are plenty of solutions, and we need to talk about these as much as (or more than!) the problems!
No doubt there wasn’t time for everything. (It was only 3 episodes, after all!)
So I thought I’d explore some of the solutions here. Today, I’m going to talk about food waste, and more specifically, what people are doing about.
Food waste is a huge issue in Australia, with around 40% of food being discarded before it leaves farms, and shoppers throwing away 20% of everything they buy (the equivalent of 1 bag of shopping in 5). The UK reported similar statistics with their Hugh’s War on Waste series last year, saying 1/3 of food produced is never eaten. The figure is similar in the U.S.
The supermarkets are linked to a lot of this waste. With their strict cosmetic standards, unbalanced supplier contracts in favour of the retailer, pre-packaging loose items (where they control the portion sizes), and promotional 3-for-2 offers that encourage us to buy more than we need, they encourage waste at every stage in the process.
Arguably, it’s a broken system. But within this system, organizations are doing what they can to reduce this food waste by distributing some of the surplus to others who need it via charity partners.
Here in Perth there are a number of organisations working to fight food waste by “rescuing” food.
Food Bank: are the largest food relief organisation in Australia. They deal with large quantities and collect food on a massive scale. They don’t go to individual supermarkets to collect discards, but rather collect pallets of food from warehouses for redistribution.
Oz Harvest: with their quirky yellow vans, Oz Harvest collect surplus food from all types of food providers, including fruit and vegetable markets, farmers, supermarkets, wholesalers, stadiums, corporate events, catering companies, hotels, shopping centres, cafes, delis, restaurants, film and TV shoots and boardrooms. They collect both fresh food and dry goods and distribute as is to charitable partners.
Food Rescue WA: a WA initiative of UnitingCare West, Food Rescue WA collects surplus fresh produce (no dry goods) from cafes, supermarkets and farmers and repacks into “veg boxes” which are distributed to charitable partners.
Case Study: Food Rescue WA
This week I had the opportunity to visit Food Rescue WA in Belmont (a suburb of Perth). I was amazed, humbled and heartened by what I saw and learned. They haven’t stood by in despair at what can seem an overwhelming situation; they’ve got to work righting some of the wrongs.
Food Rescue WA have just two full time staff, with 4 casual drivers and 100 regular volunteers. Powered by this volunteer army, and with 4 vans that have been donated, they collect food from 49 supermarkets, sort and re-pack, and redistribute to 78 different charitable organisations.
In addition, they have two food carts which collect food from 37 cafes in the CBD, and redistribute directly to homeless people in the city who have no access to kitchens.
Between them, they supply food to organisations who feed more than 11,000 people every week.
Food arrives here at the Food Rescue WA warehouse in various ways and for various reasons. The black boxes at the front are assorted rejects from the supermarkets. The oranges are an overstock. The yellow container at the back (a cubic metre) comes directly from a farmer, with carrots that don’t meet the cosmetic/size standards.
Food Rescue WA only deal with fresh fruit and vegetables. They also receive eggs for redistribution, and occasionally chilled products.
The food is then sorted by volunteers and distributed into boxes (old banana boxes). The food is distributed so that each box has variety and colour, and looks visually appealing.
Food Rescue WA currently operates from Monday to Friday, but they may expand into weekends. The volunteers arrive at 7am and sorting and packing is generally completed by 10am. The boxes are then delivered, with all charities in receipt of their food by 11.30am.
What happens next is up to the charities. Some cook meals using the ingredients; others allow people to take the boxes home to cook for their families.
This operation provides 11,000 meals a week. That’s impressive in itself, but there’s more. Food Rescue WA don’t just fight food waste, though. They fight other waste too.
Firstly, they sort and recycle all of their packaging. They have a plastics recycling system where plastics are separated into their different types (numbers) and then this is collected by CLAW Environmental for recycling.
They even go one step further and remove all the plastic packaging from the boxes they are donating to the charities. They realise that the charities won’t have the time or capacity to recycle the soft plastic, and may not have the knowledge to sort it correctly either.
By removing the plastic before it is distributed, it saves the charity workers a job and also the disposal costs, and ensures it gets recycled properly.
Food Rescue WA currently recycles 4 cubic meters of soft plastic a week.
The food received by charities is packed into banana boxes which can be returned for re-use. Typically a driver will deliver new boxes, collect old empty ones and they will be re-used for packing. Each box can be used several times before it begins to wear out. The cardboard is then recycled.
Food Rescue WA have an innovative composting machine called the Orca that aerobically digests unusable food waste rapidly, and produces a liquid effluent that can be safely discharged into the municipal sewerage system.
Food Rescue WA did secure backing to fund a composter in the past, but unfortunately could not get council approval to install it.
Fighting Food Waste: What Can I Do?
There’s plenty of things we can do as individuals to reduce our food waste at home. We can reduce what we buy, learn to understand the different ‘Best Before’ and ‘Use By ‘codes, and also learn how to tell if something is good or bad without relying on the packaging telling us. We can learn new ways to cook things, embrace home composting and get more organized so there are no longer unidentified objects that used to be food lurking at the back of our fridges. (For more ideas, here’s 12 tips to reducing food waste.)
But we can go one step further. We can support these organisations working to reduce food waste. Here’s three ideas:
Volunteer for a few hours at a Food Rescue service such as Food Rescue WA and donate your time to help collect, sort and redistribute food that’s headed to landfill to people who need it. Or if you have a specialised skill that you think may be of use, offer these services!
Donate to the cause. These organisations run on volunteer hours and donated food, but still need to pay for utilities, fuel and maintenance to keep the operation running. Donating money directly to these organizations is better than buying food from supermarkets to donate. There’s already plenty of food out there that needs rescuing, and supermarkets really don’t need our money – the charities do!
Share their story! Tell your local cafe, restaurant, workplace, supermarket, greengrocer or farmer about these services, and encourage them to use them and support the work that they do.
If you’d like to get involved with or support Food Rescue WA, you can find more information here.
Now I’d love to hear from you! What solutions do you have for reducing food waste – at home, at work or in your local community? What organisations are doing great things in your local community and how could you support their work? Any thoughts on the story I’ve shared? Anything else you’d like to add? Please leave a comment below!
It is heartening that these organizations are helping to lessen the waste of the supermarkets. It is less heartening to know that Foodbank is somewhat selective in what they take (my wife used to work for Coles).
Surely the supermarkets can make more effort to reduce waste too, instead of chasing the dollar.
Hi Darren, thanks for your comment! I don’t think Foodbank’s selectiveness is a bad thing although I haven’t visited them (yet). They are set up to deal with massive quantities (forklift-able quantities) so have different infrastructure and a different model to the smaller operators like Food Rescue WA. Together they seem to cover all the bases :)
Are you kidding?! I don’t think supermarkets give a stuff! (About shoppers, farmers, the environment…) I read an interview with the Coles boss the other day and his priority was…lowering prices! Food is cheaper than it’s ever been, and he wants it even cheaper? We all know that “cheap” costs someone somewhere… http://www.news.com.au/finance/business/retail/battle-lines-are-drawn-in-coles-fight-against-aldi-and-amazon/news-story/22c6343b20ccaf110414c77b2af23f88
I know, Lindsay. I am always the optimist, lol.
Seriously, the attitudes of the supermarkets really annoy me. Consumers need to stop getting sucked into their “buy 3 for 2” or similar deals. The same goes for their so-called specials. Not only are the producing companies being screwed to sell for less, quite often you can buy another brand cheaper than the advertised “special”.
The fresh produce no longer saleable, or the bits they remove for sale, are all tossed away. No-one is allowed to collect it for their animals for example.
Rant over. :)
Hi Darren, permission to rant ;) I was so sucked into those 3-for-2s before I went plastic-free and quit the supermarket. I just didn’t realise that it was costing me more. It took me 18 months to use up all the plastic in my bathroom because I had “saved” so much money in buying far more than I needed and had ridiculous amounts of stuff.
It does feel good to be free from their clutches ;)
Lindsay, so did we. When my wife and I went shopping, we also got sucked in by the offers, and ended up with lots of fresh products we often ended up throwing out instead of using. The idea is good at the time, but in our previously “busy” lives, the idea never translated to reality.
Now I look back and think…I can’t believe I was fooled for so long!
Hugely support the efforts of the food rescue charities and I have done some volunteering with Ozharvest. I think we all need to look at ourselves and our habits to see where we peronally can make changes. Several years ago I started a small balcony compost and realised I had way too much food waste for my little compost to handle and I was more aware of the good food I was wasting. I stopped shopping at major supermarkets, don’t buy any pre-packaged produce, generally only shop when I have used up everything I have (old habit was to always go for the shiny new stuff allowing the old to go off), and if I go to Harris Farm I always start with the ‘imperfect’ aisle to support wider variety of produce sold in stores and support our fabulous farmers. I also attempt to grow a few things, with variable success so far. Changing habits is hard. I always suggest people pick 1-2 things they want to change, commit and focus, and celebrate the little wins. Only saw 1.5 episodes of the War on Waste but love that it has gotten so many people talking.
Volunteering at one of the food rescue charities is definitely on my to-do list. Good on you for giving your time to support them Mel :)
We had a similar experience – we had three worm farms on our balcony (in polystyrene boxes that stacked on top of each other) but yes, it was a task to fit everything in. I found recipes for mandarins and oranges that used the skin, used the stalks of things like broccoli in stirfries, tried all sorts of things. When you try to deal with it at home and you have limited space, it makes you very aware!
Sounds like you’ve made some great changes. Thanks for sharing!
How fantastic! I love a good heartening story like this. It’s a shame they couldn’t get council approval for a composter though, it would have been a much better use of the food scraps.
I was so inspired when I left, Sarah! So awesome to see people tackling a problem (multiple problems) so well. Yes, shame about the composter. One day councils will stop being so afraid of everything!
I’m really hoping they air a similar series in the states because its soooo important. Big high five to Australia for getting on that. Also, I think its so great what that organization is doing for waste all around!! :)
Hi Erica, thanks for your comment. The UK did a War on Waster series last year I think too, so it is definitely America’s turn next! ;)
I enjoyed the show as well but I think there was a bit too much blame put on Coles and Woolworths for following what the customer ‘wants’. As I have been shopping since I watched the show I have been thinking more consciencely about how I select my fresh food. I have a retail soft good back ground and I can appreciate how they came to all of the decisions around packaging without considering the full impact beyond supply chain rationalisation and improved sales. Coles and Woolworths were looking after their own backyard without considering the impact beyond shareholder return and I am glad that it is beginning to change.
I would have liked to see more solutions apart from use reusable bags and coffee cups, but is that just because these are thing I have already done? Does everyone else need a reminder about these basic things?
I am still trying to figure out why I feel that the supermarkets were hard done by in this series. I have never felt sympathy for the, before- perhaps a better understanding of consumer psychology and supply chain economics was beyond the scope of the show.
Not really sure why but I was left feeling a little confused after watching.
The consumer education pieces such as showing why bottles should be empty when they are recycled and showing what a recycling plant actually does we’re great to see. Thank you for building on the points raised in the show to continue showing everyone these details.
Jennifer, you make some good points, however I have to disagree about the supermarkets. I don’t think they were unfairly dealt with at all. Perhaps if the show had more episodes the producers could look at other organizations and how they create waste.
And you only have to look around when you are out to realize that most people do need a reminder, or perhaps educating. Everywhere you look, people have a takeaway cup of coffee, or a plastic bottle of water. Having moved to regional Australia last year, I am surprised at how many people don’t bring their own shopping bags, far less than the city. And that is in SA, where we have a plastic bag ban of sorts.
I agree is probably was a time and audience thing – if you are reading blogs like this the. You are looking for more details then that type of series won’t be what you are looking for.
I am looking forward to the next one. I would love to see a show based around why a 1kg bag of carrots costs less than loose carrots and how it got that way.
Regarding your question about carrots, Jennifer – have you heard of ‘loss leaders’? That is why a 1kg bag of carrots is cheaper. Supermarkets pick certain products – 1kg bag of carrots, 2 litres of milk, loaf of bread and charge less than they cost to entice shoppers in, allow themselves to compare their prices with other shops to prove they are “cheaper” and let us think they are affordable. They wear the cost because once we are in the store, we will probably pick up a heap of other things to. It’s a marketing tactic. And a very effective one :(
I agree Darren, that the supermarkets have a lot to answer for and should be held more to account. So I thought this was a good thing. I liked the focus on food and food waste because it is such a simple thing to stop and something that every single one of us can make a difference with. Whereas something like construction rubble and the construction industry generally – also extremely wasteful, but not relevant to everyone. And as concerned citizens, we can’t all do something about that. With food waste we can.
I hear your frustration, Darren, but I also believe that change is coming. We will get there!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jennifer! It’s interesting that you felt sorry for Coles and Woolworths. I can’t say that I did. I am glad the public are more aware of how these companies operate. (I used to work in food retail in a supermarket in a past life, so I have a good understanding about how they work. I think I just assumed that everyone else did, but the War on Waste series highlighted that this isn’t true.)
I totally agree with you about sharing more solutions. Otherwise we are just normalising the issues – and if people don’t know how to act in response to a problem, then most won’t. So I think there was a missed opportunity. I feel like there are so many solutions, they could have talked about these a lot more. That said, they had a lot to cram into 3 episodes!
Hope you’re feeling better now!
Yeah I am still laughing at myself for feeling sorry for them!! I know people that work there and they get hammered to meet sales targets and they work huge hours. It really comes down to following the numbers – this formula leads to the best results so we only do this. It’s how we have ended up with monoculture. I got out of a huge mass market role where all we did was smooth everything down to this homogenous product sell 100,000s a season of the same thing.
I know exactly how we ended up here and it’s good to see that starting to change.
I hadn’t thought of the carrots as loss leaders. I was thinkng more in terms of handeling and supply chain cost savings. It is easier to handle 1kg bags, easier to shelf stack, and customers may buy a full kilo instead of 600gms, so it’s built in up sell.
Anyway, next time I feel sorry for Coles and woollies I will have a cup of tea and lie down. And never take a job there.
Hopefully there is a season two in the works!
Great blog drawing attention to things we can do! Julie Broad and her team at Food Rescue in Belmont are amazing – I had the opportunity to visit them too. Isn’t the Orca amazing. Julie is one energetic woman who inspires many – same as yourself, Lindsay, and you both take the time to show us how easy it can be to contribute! Thanks! From Urban Tucker Woman