Food waste is big news at the moment, as well it should be. According to a recent World Resources Institute report, approximately a third of all food produced for human consumption never gets eaten.
Efforts to reduce this figure often focus on waste generated by supermarkets, shops and restaurants. In France, for example, legislation has recently been passed that will require supermarkets to donate all unsold food to charity, and there have been calls to replicate this model across Europe. In Britain, Real Junk Food Project cafés have been spreading, serving up unwanted food from local shops and restaurants on a ‘pay as you feel’ basis.
It’s easy to blame big business and poor policy for the scandalous amount of waste generated every year, but we mustn’t forget that what we do in our own kitchens also contributes to this problem. After all, according to a 2012 WRAP report, the average UK household throws away 19% of all food and drink it purchases. Nationwide, that adds up to around 7 million tonnes annually.
The majority of domestic food waste is disposed of for two reasons: either we’ve bought or grown more than we can use, or we’ve made more than we can eat. Of course, it’s easy to cite many practical ways to avoid these eventualities – such as only buying what you need, measuring your portion sizes properly and freezing any leftovers – but even the most dedicated environmentalists slip up sometimes. It might be an unexpected glut of tomatoes in the garden, or a homemade curry that’s just too spicy. Either way, sooner or later most of us find ourselves confronted with more food than we know what to do with.
Luckily, the ‘sharing economy’ may provide a solution. A growing number of projects devoted to community food sharing are popping up, relying on a mixture of awareness raising on the ground and new technologies to link people together. From the garden to the kitchen, these initiatives are bringing people into contact to share their food more efficiently – and, in so doing, bringing about a whole host of economic, health and social benefits.
In the garden
Let’s take that glut of tomatoes, for example. Say you’ve suddenly found your allotment inundated with the things. You’ve eaten as many as you can, gifted them to all the friends and family you can think of, filled your cupboards with jars of tomato chutney and still you have too many. You don’t want to throw perfectly good produce onto the compost heap, but what else can you do?
One solution is to donate them to charity through an organisation such as Foodshare, which was co-founded by Mark Desvaux and Daniel Spencer in response to an unexpected abundance of courgettes. After discovering that a nearby children’s hospice would greatly appreciate any unwanted fruit or veg – anything to make a dent in their spiralling food bills – the two gardeners set up a ‘donation station’ in their allotment to collect spare produce, and within three months more than £1,000 of fresh food had been donated. In 2010, Foodshare launched across Britain and now it’s connecting growers with local charities all over the world, encouraging its volunteers to either grow food for the purpose or simply donate their surplus fruit and veg. So far, more than £100,000 of fresh food has been donated to those in need.
In addition to giving away food you don’t want, you can also try swapping it for food you need. Websites like Veg Exchange allow users to post their homegrown produce online for others to pick up or barter for. If you’d rather do things in the flesh, you can also search for nearby food swap events through The Food Swap Network or Apples for Eggs.
In the kitchen
Now let’s turn our attention to your too-hot-to-handle curry. The dish is perfectly edible and other people might like it, but there’s no way you’re eating it. So how do you go about finding a home for the spicy fiend?
One answer is to download an app such as LeftoverSwap. Simply snap a photo of your dish, write a short description and post everything onto the online map. If another user wants it, they can come and pick it up free of charge. While you’re online, you can also scan your local area for any other food that takes your fancy – after all, now that you’ve got rid of the curry, you’ll need to find an alternative dinner. Although LeftoverSwap is not yet widely used in Britain, globally it has been downloaded more than 15,000 times, and the app currently hosts 50–100 posts a month. “Users are a wide swath of people,” explains the app’s co-founder Dan Newman. “Some value sustainability, and similarly some value using food efficiently, while others value helping others.”
If you’re lucky enough to live in Galdakao or Murcia in Spain then you don’t even need to go online – a trip to your local ‘solidarity fridge’ will be enough. Simply pop your curry into your town’s communal fridge along with a note of when it was made, and let your hungry neighbours help themselves.
More than just a meal
The wonderful thing about food sharing schemes is that the resulting reduction in food waste is just one of many positive outcomes. Take Casserole Club, a community project in Britain and Australia that aims not to reduce food waste so much as link frail or ill ‘diners’ with volunteer ‘cooks’ – neighbours happy to bring them extra portions of a home-cooked meal once in a while. Diners benefit from a hot meal and social contact, cooks can put their food to good use, and communities are brought closer together. Yes, waste is reduced, but the effects go far deeper than that.
Food waste doesn’t exist in a vacuum; every dish saved from the landfill has the potential to provide a much-needed meal to a family at a foodbank or an individual struggling to make ends meet. By sharing our food more efficiently, we can ensure that everyone gets the health-giving nutrition they need, irrespective of their finances, in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
Luckily, if the pioneering initiatives listed above are anything to go by, it looks like it’s getting easier than ever to share food well. Here’s hoping the shared food economy continues to thrive.
Photograph: Steph French
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