How FoodCycle is tackling waste and helping those most in need this Christmas

Written by: Brogan Waterson | Published:
Around 15% of FoodCycle guests are homeless

Every year the charity FoodCycle successfully saves hundreds of tonnes of surplus food by diverting it away from retailers’ grocery bins and into the capable hands of volunteers.

These dedicated volunteers then prepare, cook and serve the rescued food as nutritious three-course meals to those who need it – all for free.

It seems a very simple solution to a problem that has been hanging around roughly since the age of the supermarket. With the average UK household disposable income dropping to record lows, and the average UK annual food bill set to rise to £357 by the end of 2017, it’s no wonder people are finding it harder and harder to afford the pure basics such as food.

This is one of the reasons FoodCycle is serving more and more meals every year. In this year alone the charity has served 55,046 people – 2.7% of the two million malnourished people in the UK. This number is expected to rise year on year as the charity expands to meet rapidly growing demand.

Currently, FoodCycle has 35 projects in locations throughout England including Exeter, London, Peterborough, Sheffield, Liverpool and Durham. Currently, proposals are being made for Haringey in London and Salford near Manchester.

Food waste and food poverty coexist in nearly every part of the UK. Whether in the North, South East or West, each of the FoodCycle projects operates with the same aim in mind: to reduce food waste and social isolation through free community meals.

Though extremely relevant all year around, some of the issues FoodCycle helps to combat become even more pertinent during the festive period. For most, Christmas is about indulgence. Spending more time surrounded by friends and family, splashing out on gifts for loved ones, and eating to excess.

For many of the guests who come to FoodCycle, this season can instead be one of complete loneliness, harsher living conditions and rapidly worsening mental and physical health. Around 15% of FoodCycle guests are homeless, almost half live alone, over a third have a long-term health condition and 44% live on very low incomes.

One in four homeless people will spend 25 December alone, and 350,000 elderly people nationwide will have no-one to share Christmas day with. To help combat this isolation, FoodCycle always operates on a completely inclusive and non-means-tested basis. Absolutely anyone and everyone is invited to join to be part of a welcoming community where everyone has food in common.

One man's trash is another man's treasure

‘Excess’ is certainly a word synonymous with food when it comes to the festive period. The more the merrier: the more people, the more food, the more drink. All of these extra festive treats soon add up, with the average household spending a huge £174 on food for Christmas Day alone. In 2014, the UK waste around 4.2 million Christmas dinners. That’s the equivalent to 263,000 turkeys, 7.5 million mince pies, 17.2 million Brussel sprouts, 11.9 million carrots, and 11.3 million roast potatoes.

According to research undertaken by Sainsbury’s, many of these turkeys and sprouts are discarded before they even reach the table because people simply don’t know how best to cook them. Around half of all food thrown away comes from our households, therefore placing at least 50% of food waste responsibility firmly on the shoulders of consumers.

The other half of the responsibility lies within the complicated process from farm to supermarket. Whether its high aesthetic standards for fruit and veg, or unrealistic best-before dates, there are a myriad of reasons that half of all food grown in the UK is binned before anyone has a chance to consume it.

Crooked carrots, overweight packet potatoes and bruised satsumas won’t even see the light of Christmas day as they are thrown away for their sub-par appearance. Supermarkets are making efforts to reduce waste, with many relaxing their approach to perfect-looking groceries, but for this to have real impact consumers need to shift their expectations when it comes to their ideal, blemish-free and perfectly formed fruit and vegetables.

As someone who has worked at a supermarket and who volunteers with FoodCycle, I have seen both sides of the ‘war on waste’. With predetermined weekly waste targets, there definitely is an effort by supermarkets to keep waste numbers minimal. However, the emphasis is always on the potential profits wasted and not the environmental impact of the produce being thrown away.

FoodCycle currently has 33 projects nationwide

I have had to discard items because packaging is damaged, or they have been delivered without barcodes or sell-by dates on, and on a daily basis I have to dispose of chilled items because shoppers leave them outside of the fridge. At FoodCycle I have seen what good these ‘waste foods’ can do when donated to one of our projects. What one person determines to be unfit for sale could become a lifeline meal for one of our guests.

At my local FoodCycle project in Sheffield, we serve between 30 and 40 guests every Wednesday at noon. Our volunteers work in teams throughout the day to fetch, cook and serve the food. You never know what you’ll be receiving in food donations on the day so the cooking team always have their work cut out creating upwards of 40 nutritious three-course meals.

The team are not culinary professionals, but FoodCycle doesn’t see ability as a boundary. One volunteer cook told me he came from a cultural background where women traditionally did all the cooking.

Then, when he became a single father with children to feed, he was suddenly in need of some cooking skills. Cue weekly FoodCycle lessons and some words of wisdom from fellow volunteers. He now regularly leads the cooking team, which only serves as proof that knowing more about food is how you can begin to stop wasting it.

The issue of food waste is huge and one that FoodCycle itself cannot overcome. There are 800 million people starving in the world, yet global food wastage could feed two billion people.

If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, beaten only by the US and China. If any change is going to happen, it needs to begin with the way we perceive food, and what we determine ‘waste’ to be.

Food retailers have the upper hand when it comes to control over food availability, but it only takes one to react to a shift in consumer attitudes for others to quickly follow suit. FoodCycle is contributing to an issue which everyone can help overcome, encouraging and championing individual change so that everyone can reach a shared solution.

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