10 September 2020, 07:15 AM
  • We look at how the country’s progress is shaping up post-lockdown, and how you can get involved to establish a more food-secure future
How has COVID-19 impacted the UK’s fight against food waste?

Priorities shifted massively during lockdown as businesses and individuals got to grips with the pandemic. And as our attention turned to food security and protecting our health, some say the industry’s environmental efforts took a hit as a result.

With so much still unknown about how the virus was being transmitted, many companies and consumers switched to single-use takeaway containers, which saw plastic waste rise. But one positive that came out of lockdown was a reduction in food waste.

According to Love Food Hate Waste, the UK reduced its household food waste by one-third during lockdown. It seems that with many people confined to their homes, cooking more from scratch and likely trying to save money where possible, consumers have been actively reusing leftovers, planning their shops, keeping their food cupboards organised, making the most of their freezers and of course, putting their overripe bananas to good use. Campaigns like the Climate Venture Collective’s Lockdown Leftovers have played a big part along the way, helping people to think more carefully about their food waste.

In stark contrast, many fresh items grown and produced on UK farms were being discarded during lockdown, as the hospitality shutdown made it difficult for farmers and growers to get their products to market. But the industry was quick to take action, with nationwide campaigns encouraging Brits to buy more milk and cheese, right down to indie retailers reaching out to local farmers to stock their surplus produce.

Now, with life slowly returning to ‘normal’, employees heading back to the office and restaurants opening up again, campaigners are urging businesses and consumers to continue with their efforts to reduce food waste for a more sustainable future. The UK’s food system has been under intense scrutiny throughout the pandemic, and food waste and food security could work hand-in-hand to improve social as well as environmental issues.

While positive progress was made during lockdown, since restrictions have eased, the UK’s household food waste has increased by nearly one-third, according to the Government’s waste advisory body, WRAP. It suggests that our progress to reduce waste was spurred on by concerns about doing the food shop and running out of food – motivation that is waning as we recover from lockdown.

That said, the figures are still significantly lower than pre-lockdown levels, which offers hope that people are keen to make a change. But what does all of this mean for the food industry?

No time for waste
A nationwide survey of 2,000 UK adults found that two-thirds of people feel differently about food as a result of the difficulties faced during coronavirus restrictions. It seems many people are still keen to put time and effort into cooking from scratch and using up leftovers moving forward. That’s according to a survey by Tesco and waste-reduction charity Hubbub, and it’s led the duo to launch the No Time For Waste Challenge – a six-week trial showing 55 households how to best cut food waste.

Back in June, Waitrose announced that it was taking steps to reduce waste by selling wonky veg of various shapes and sizes as part of efforts to stop homegrown produce from going to waste, and to support British farmers during the pandemic.

So are these campaigns an indication of things to come?

With many people admitting that they don’t want things to return to how they were pre-pandemic, we could see an increased motivation to decrease food waste – much like we’ve seen support for independent businesses, British farmers and local retailers continue after lockdown. While people may be making their own changes at home, they could also be looking to see how food businesses are playing their own part, as well as seeking support and advice from organisations.

For food businesses, retailers and indie brands, it creates an opportunity to tap into this trend and changing consumer behaviour with everything from stocking surplus produce and waste-busting brands like Nudie Snacks, to sharing recipes that use up leftovers, and offering advice through social media and newsletters on how to reduce food waste at home.

Indie retailers, in particular, may find it challenging to reduce food waste given the low turnover, but there are ways to turn food waste into an opportunity that’s in line with your brand – it’s all about getting creative.

Food producers and foodservice outlets may also find opportunities to collaborate in an effort to save surplus food from going to waste, while demonstrating to consumers the efforts that are being taken to curb waste, support local growers and do their part for the environment. Restaurants and cafes also have access to various platforms such as Karma, which gives consumers access to unsold meals at a discount.

It seems efforts are being ramped up across the board, too, giving an increasing number of food businesses access to vital resources.

Defra‘s food surplus and waste prevention champion Ben Elliot recently wrote to food businesses to urge them to work together to keep the supply chain moving and reduce waste as lockdown eased. It’s part of wider efforts by the organisation to ensure that nutritious food doesn’t go to waste by encouraging businesses to sell or redistribute food that is still safe and suitable to eat. It led to the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) urging suppliers and foodservice firms to work together to manage frozen stock that was nearing the end of its shelf-life as a result of COVID-19 stockpiling. To help companies do this, BFFF produced a guide with various actions that includes extending ‘best before’ dates; agreeing a price reduction with costs fairly distributed between parties; and disposing food through redistribution organisations such as charities.

Most recently, Defra and WRAP have joined forces to offer a COVID-19 emergency grant support package. The grant is seeking applications before 25th September, and will provide financial support for medium-to-large-scale NFP organisations that redistribute surplus food from food retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers to people in need.

It’s a positive move, and one small step of the larger puzzle towards curbing waste across the UK’s food system.

Efforts to reduce food waste are everyone’s responsibility, from producer to consumer. And as we’ve seen with various aspects of the food industry, the impact of COVID-19 could lead to positive change as businesses and consumers come together to establish a more secure and sustainable food system for the future.

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