How independents can help to tackle the ‘hidden crisis’ of food waste

03 November 2022, 11:47 AM
  • With the food waste problem only growing, we explore how fine food retailers are well-placed to tackle the issue
How independents can help to tackle the ‘hidden crisis’ of food waste

According to new research by the WWF, almost three million tonnes of edible food go to waste on UK farms each year. This has been described as a ‘hidden crisis’ for the country. 

The report says produce worth £1.8bn is lost each year, which is the equivalent to 6.9bn meals annually, or more than 18m meals a day. 

This research comes at a time when the cost-of-living crisis is forcing many to choose between food or heating, and FareShare saw a drop of around 200 tonnes in donations every month this summer.

Reducing retail waste
The problem of food waste is something that all households, producers and retailers need to work on to tackle together, but independents with small supply chains and strong connections to the community can play a crucial role. 

As Rebecca Tobi, senior business and investment engagement manager at The Food Foundation, explained, “Working closely with suppliers and food producers and growers can be one way of reducing food waste right from the word go. 

“A lot of food waste in the UK actually happens once people are at home, but retailers and farm shops can definitely support their customers to waste less food. For example, ditching best before dates and providing more flexible options for people to buy fresh produce (people often just want a couple of carrots, not a whole bag!) can help to reduce food waste further up the chain.”

James Woodward, sustainable farming officer at Sustain, added, “Cutting the amount of food wasted at all stages, from production through to the household, is an important part of tackling the climate and nature crisis. 

“The larger retailers are a significant driver due to their just-in-time model and strict product requirements. This is where SME, local retailers are playing a crucial role in offering a diversity of markets for producers and selling products of all shapes and sizes.”

The power of repurposing
Unfortunately, in the current financial situation, consumer shopping behaviour is difficult to predict and some food waste is unavoidable. But there are ways to repurpose this food that retailers aren’t able to sell in its current state.

As James explains, “Food waste needs to be reduced overall and food should not be seen as a lost leader, however while there is significant waste, we must find ways to get that surplus onto people’s plates. 

“For example, independent retailers could work with food gleaning projects, or offer more routes to market for food that does not meet the exacting and ludicrous product requirements of multiple retailers.”

Lucy Antal, lead for food justice at Feedback Global, mirrored these thoughts, pointing out that “The biggest issue for many food redistributing charities or community food projects is the actual collection of the surplus so if the speciality food producers and retailers can help deliver direct to projects that would be a huge help. Alternatively, “adopt” a project locally that you can support. There are plenty out there.”

Rebecca also added that although working with charities to redistribute waste is one way for retailers to support their local communities, “We’d also like to see retailers working to make meaningful links in other ways – for example providing jobs with fair wages to those locally and supporting schemes that help vulnerable groups – such as the Healthy Start scheme.”

But there’s also a way to re-use food waste in-house to generate more income. As Lucy explained, it’s all about “Being clever with your surplus – if you can turn “old” veg into stocks or soups which you can sell, think about turning stale bread into breadcrumbs. In many ways, food waste is wasted money, and needs to be thought about as a value proposition. It’s also about embracing wonky and imperfect fruit and vegetables, and offering that for sale at a lower rate.”

Government action
While there is individual responsibility for food waste in the UK, the government does have the power to generate real change. 

As Lucy explained, “Ultimately, we want to see a world where waste doesn’t arise in the first place, and nobody has to rely on food charity to survive in one of the richest countries in the world. That’s why Feedback is calling on the government to introduce systemic solutions to food waste, like mandatory food waste reporting for large and medium-sized food businesses, including farms.”

But for James, “This reporting needs to be backed up by legally binding targets. At the same time, the Government needs to introduce an investment plan to boost local food systems and diversify routes to markets for producers based on fairness, sustainability, and resilience.”

In order to really tackle this hidden crisis, Rebecca concluded that “Making it compulsory for companies to transparently report on their levels of food waste – and set targets for reducing this – will be critical if we’re to stand any real chance of reducing food waste at a national level.”

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