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A growing army of New Zealanders is waging a war on waste

Every day, as people go hungry, good food is thrown away, simply because it doesn’t look pretty in a display cabinet.

Deborah Manning: in the complex business of matching waste with want. Photo/Sharon Bennett
Deborah Manning: in the complex business of matching waste with want. Photo/Sharon Bennett

On one page was a story about kids going to school hungry and on another a report about “dumpster divers” living off the food thrown out by super­markets. For Dunedin woman Deborah Manning, that morning’s newspaper outlined both the problem and the seeds of a solution: surely someone needed to simply connect the good food that was getting dumped with the families going hungry?

For five months, she researched, talked to supermarkets and social service agencies and wrote food safety manuals. Then she ditched her job as a lawyer and threw herself into the complex business of matching waste with want.

She started by driving around Dunedin’s supermarkets in her car collecting day-old bread and items rejected because they were nudging their “best before” date and dropping them off around the city. In her first month of solo operation, she collected and distributed the equivalent of 1000 meals. When it got busier, she recruited a friend to help out. And when she could no longer see in the rear-vision mirror because of the volume of food stacked in the back, she explained her problem to a local car dealer, who donated a van.

Four years on, FoodShare, the organisation launched in the back of her vehicle, has distributed enough food to make more than a million meals. Every day, astonishing volumes of perfectly edible fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, and other unsold food from 55 shops and suppliers are funnelled with logistical precision through a room not much bigger than a home kitchen, from where it is collected by 58 recipient social agencies.

In Dunedin, volunteers and staff of Foodshare have distributed enough food in the past four years to make more than a million meals. Photo/Sharon Bennett
In Dunedin, volunteers and staff of Foodshare have distributed enough food in the past four years to make more than a million meals. Photo/Sharon Bennett

At nine each morning, the van driver and a volunteer do a sweep around city cafes and bakeries to collect short-dated items such as sandwiches, which are immediately dropped off to agencies that will use them by the end of that day. “Often those organisations say to their clients, ‘Before you tell me anything, sit down and have a sandwich, and then we’ll talk’ – because sometimes people haven’t eaten for days,” says Manning.

At around midday, there’s a second round of food collection, this time from supermarkets and other shops. It is brought back to the small brick building in a central Dunedin industrial zone that serves as FoodShare’s headquarters, where volunteers weigh it, document it and sort it into boxes matched to the needs of recipient agencies. A chiller at the rear of the room is crammed with bags of baby spinach, carrots, apples, milk, yoghurt; stacked on tables ready for sorting are loaves of bread and rolls, still fresh after a day on the supermarket shelf.

Manning has meticulously collected data from the moment she started FoodShare. To date, more than 400,000kg – that’s 400 tonnes – of food with an estimated value of nearly $4.2 million has been rescued from the waste stream and diverted to human need. She’s also monitoring the environmental benefits of rescuing food that took precious resources to produce: 1.7 million tonnes of CO2 has been saved, as well as enough water to fill 18 Olympic swimming pools and enough energy to power 109 homes for a year.

And it’s all done on the smell of an oily rag: for $1 in overheads (petrol for the delivery van, wages for the five part-time staff, electricity to keep the lights and chiller on), FoodShare can distribute three meals. Funding comes from grants, sponsorship and services donated by local businesses. Manning has also started making money by offering corporate team-building days, in which groups cook a meal using only rescued food under the guidance of a chef, box it up and take it to a charity of their choice.

Photo/Sharon Bennett
Photo/Sharon Bennett

Filling in the gaps

At the heart of the operation are 140 volunteers, who have jointly contributed almost 6000 hours of their time to make it all happen. Manning is one of a cluster of social entrepreneurs and community organisations working in the gap between waste and hunger. There are groups in West Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Christchurch and Palmerston North. Last year, prompted by support from Goodman Property Group, Manning took the FoodShare model to Auckland and set up under the name KiwiHarvest.

In Wellington, Kaibosh has been rescuing food from the waste stream since 2008, when founder Robyn Langlands started collecting unsold sandwiches from retailer Wishbone and dropping them off to groups working with vulnerable clients. These days, says general manager Matt Daggar, the organisation distributes over 10,000kg of food a month – the equivalent of 37,000 meals. He says with a small paid staff, 120 volunteers and a budget reliant on grants, donations and fundraising, the organisation is getting food to about 4000 people a month.

Organisations such as Kaibosh and FoodShare are now playing an integral role in alleviating poverty, he says. He credits strong support from supermarkets and donors, when it comes to addressing the volumes of food that would otherwise go to waste or be fed to animals, but he suspects “we’re just scratching the surface”.

Many international studies suggest he may be right. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated in 2011 that a third of all the food produced in the world never reaches consumers’ tables. Some put the figure even higher: a major study published in 2013 by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) concluded that between 30% and 50% – up to two billion tonnes – is lost along the supply chain from “farm to fork”.

Matt Daggar: feeding 4000 people a month.
Matt Daggar: feeding 4000 people a month.

In developing countries, much of the waste is due to poor refrigeration and transport systems – in India, for instance, it’s estimated that 21 million tonnes of wheat is wasted every year because of inadequate storage and distribution, and in south-east Asia rice losses range from 37% to 80% of production.

But in rich countries, the bulk of waste arises because of “aesthetic preferences and arbitrary sell-by dates”, according to the IMechE report. Major supermarkets in developed countries “will often reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm because they do not meet exacting marketing standards for their physical characteristics, such as size and appearance”.

The report estimated that as much as 30% of the UK vegetable crop is never harvested because of these standards, and globally, “retailers generate 1.6 million tonnes of food waste annually in this way”.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation put the 2012 market value of food lost or wasted at US$936 billion – close to the GDP of Indonesia – and reported that the greenhouse gases emitted in the production of all this food amounts to 8% of total emissions. “If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world [behind China and the US].”

Another 2013 study, by the World Resources Institute, concluded the US and Oceania region are the most wasteful parts of the world, with over 1500 calories per capita thrown out every day. It estimated that in the UK a fifth of all food is thrown out because people think “best by” labelling is telling them it is out of date, when in fact it is still perfectly safe to eat. Another cause of waste was increasing portion sizes – the average calorie content of a restaurant cheeseburger in a US restaurant, for instance, has increased 27% since the 1970s.

Tristram Stuart: focusing on invisible waste.
Tristram Stuart: focusing on invisible waste.

Too ugly to eat

Thanks to studies like these and because of the prospect that 60% more food will be needed to feed a population of nine billion by 2050, food waste has become a topic of urgent global attention. High-profile campaigners such as Tristram Stuart, founder of environmental charity Feedback and author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, have focused attention on the waste that occurs out of the gaze of supermarket shoppers.

Last year, Stuart and colleague Edd Colbert published an investigation into the Kenyan horticulture export market, which concluded that nearly 50% of produce was being rejected by European retail buyers before it left the country, “despite there being no problem in quality or taste”. Tight appearance standards meant anything that didn’t meet the specifications was rejected from the supply chain. Wasteful packaging was also to blame – the practice of topping and tailing French beans so that they fit uniformly into the retailer’s wrapping resulted in 30-40% waste, which was either fed to cattle or dumped. One farmer reported losing up to two-thirds of his weekly harvest because of retailers’ cosmetic demands.

And just this month, a study by researchers at the University of Melbourne estimated that 60% of all food waste in Australia is generated before the food reaches the consumer’s fridge or freezer. “Strict standards defining the shape, size and colour of fresh fruit and vegetables in supermarkets can mean that a significant proportion of a crop never leaves the farm.”

There’s little reason to assume the picture is very different in New Zealand. But although the volumes of food wasted by Kiwi householders has been closely studied, there’s no publicly available data on what happens back down the supply chain, says Miranda Mirosa, of the University of Otago’s Department of Food Science and one of the founders of its inter-disciplinary food waste innovation research group.

The two supermarket companies that dominate food retailing in New Zealand both claim to be paragons of virtue when it comes to food waste. Countdown works with charities and food rescue groups including FoodShare, Kaibosh and Just Zilch to offload unsold perishable food that is still good to eat. Corporate affairs manager James Walker says all but two of its 185 stores work with a food rescue partner, and in those two exceptions there is no local partner available. Last year the company donated $3.5 million worth of food.

“Our mission is that where we can redistribute food safely, we do. A recent example was a number of mislabelled frozen chickens that we were unable to sell, that were quickly redistributed through the Salvation Army.” Food that’s not suitable for human consumption goes to farmers to feed to animals, he says.

Foodstuffs sustainability manager Mike Sammons says about half the company’s 190 owner-operated supermarkets are members of its waste-minimisation programme, and in those shops no edible food or food trimmings go to landfill.

On average, each of the company’s stores donates 1.5 tonnes of edible food a month, and eight tonnes goes to stock feed, compost or reprocessing into other products. Sammons says a survey of stores earlier this year found 77% regularly donated food for human consumption.

Photo/Sharon Bennett
Photo/Sharon Bennett

But what about the fruit and vegetables that are not the right size, colour or shape to make it across the supermarket threshold in the first place? Sammons says that in Foodstuffs, what gets stocked is up to each supermarket franchise owner, and he can’t say what volumes are rejected at the farm gate. Walker says Countdown is “increasingly working directly with our farmers to find ways that we can sell the whole crop they harvest, not just the perfectly sized fruit.” Examples in the week he spoke to the Listener were cheap deals on Braeburn apples and capsicums that were of various different shapes and sizes.

New Zealand supermarket shoppers may be less insistent than their counterparts in other developed countries on perfectly formed produce. In the UK, one study found that 46% of potatoes never got to the market because of rejection during sorting or losses during storage or following washing. Canterbury horticulturist Robin Oakley, who grows potatoes, pumpkin, broccoli and beetroot, reckons around a quarter of his potato crop is rejected – mostly because they have some green – and fed to cows. He also invites a local food bank to take as much of the rejected vegetables as it wants. He says very little of the other crops is rejected.

Oakley, who supplies Foodstuffs, says supermarket specifications are merely a reflection of consumer expectations. And he adds that the potatoes that are rejected could be trimmed and eaten, but “someone has to be prepared to pay some money for that, otherwise it doesn’t work at my end”.

Potatoes New Zealand chief executive Chris Claridge says the problem of food waste is a focus for the organisation, which has partnered with Massey University’s Riddett Institute to investigate the losses in the fresh potato supply chain. It’s also researching better uses for the waste generated in the potato processing sector, much of which currently goes to stock feed.

He describes the word waste as “inflammatory, because if the potatoes are rejects or seconds, then they are directed to food for cattle, pigs or goats”. But giving food that’s fit for human consumption to animals offends against what Mirosa calls the waste minimisation “hierarchy”: first, try to prevent waste; failing that, edible food should be directed to people who need it; animals should only get the stuff that’s not fit for humans. If it’s not fit for animals, composting produces significantly less greenhouse gas than food dumped in the landfill, which is regarded as the worst possible destination for food waste.

It’s a concept that would have been second nature to our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. American writer Jonathan Bloom, in his book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), quotes this line from an 1828 guide to home economy: “Look frequently to the pails, to see that nothing is thrown to the pigs which should have been in the grease-pot. Look to the grease-pot, and see that nothing is there which might have served to nourish your own family, or a poorer one.”

Photo/Sharon Bennett
Photo/Sharon Bennett

Future imperfect

Size and appearance standards imposed by the big supermarket chains have opened up space in the market for retail innovators. Dunedin’s Marty Hay, who started independent retailer Veggie Boys five years ago, says when produce “doesn’t fit the groove for the supermarkets, that’s an opportunity for us”. Imperfect mandarins, bins of over-sized apples, and potatoes that have been out of the ground too long to fit the supermarket’s stringent product dating regime are all Hay’s stock-in-trade. “There is wastage all the way through the [supply] chain,” he says.

But if no one knows exactly how much waste occurs between paddock and supermarket shelf, a good deal is known about how much New Zealanders waste at home. The average family throws out $563 of food a year – $872 million nationally – according to Wasteminz, whose members are councils and other organisations involved in rubbish collection, recycling and composting. And that’s not including the food that gets washed down insinkerators, fed to chickens or put in the compost. The organisation says that dumped food is enough to feed 260,000 people for a year.

To work this out, it went through the rubbish bags of 1400 households. Discarded food was weighed and sorted into three categories: avoidable waste (fruit, entire packets of biscuits, fish that had never left its packaging, for instance); potentially avoidable (the green part of leeks, crusts, potato peelings); and unavoidable (banana skins, onion peel).

A hundred families were also asked to keep a food diary for a week, and almost 1400 families were surveyed on what they threw out and why.

“We found out that half the food we put in the rubbish is edible,” says Jenny Marshall, Wasteminz’s sector group co-ordinator. Among other things, the equivalent of 20 million loaves of bread and 18 million bananas winds up in landfill, she says.

This research has formed the basis of the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, launched this month, which aims to educate people on good food-storage methods, meal planning, ideas for leftovers and recipes to use up the bits we would otherwise throw out. The campaign (lovefoodhatewaste.co.nz) has been borrowed from the UK, where it has run since 2007 and is credited with reducing household food waste by more than a fifth.

In a perfect world of food equity and frugality, groups like FoodShare and Kaibosh wouldn’t need to exist. But in the meantime, Mirosa thinks momentum is building to start lowering the mountain of wanton food waste.

“The environmental, social and economic consequences are fairly astounding when you look at the statistics on greenhouse gases and the number of people who are missing out on food and going hungry. I think there is growing awareness of the consequences of the industrialised food supply.

“Food waste is an issue the industry is wanting to engage with because if it produces less waste, it will save money, and it sees it as a relatively safe issue in terms of corporate social responsibility plans … It is no-brainer.”

Photo/Sharon Bennett
Photo/Sharon Bennett

Meal makers

The stuff you routinely throw in the bin might well be the basis of a meal. Listener food writer Lauraine Jacobs has some tips for using up the trimmings:

  • Don’t throw out the tatty outer leaves of a lettuce – wash them, then lightly steam or sauté them, or cut them into strips and put them in a stir fry.

  • Peel the stalk of broccoli and add it to the pot with the rest. “It’s actually more delicious than the floret.”

  • Use washed vegetable peelings – including onion skins – to make stock. And throw the tops of root vegetables like carrots and beetroot into the pot too.

  • If you don’t have enough peelings to make a decent volume of stock, aggregate bits and pieces in a bag in the freezer until you do.

  • Throw overripe bananas in the freezer, and use them later for banana cakes, banana bread or muffins.

  • Stale bread? Stick it in the toaster. Make breadcrumbs or bread and butter pudding. Use it instead of pastry to line a pie.

Miranda Mirosa says animals should only get food that is not fit for humans.
Miranda Mirosa says animals should only get food that is not fit for humans.

Blind dates

University of Otago’s Miranda Mirosa says there’s widespread confusion among consumers about “use by” and “best before” dates on food. International studies have repeatedly found that “best before” dates induce consumers to throw away perfectly good food in the mistaken belief that it is no longer safe.

“Best before is the manufacturer’s way of guaranteeing the top-notch quality of their product,” says Mirosa. “After that date, the texture may change, the nutritional quality may deteriorate, changes may occur in the product. So although it’s still safe, it may no longer have the attributes [promised].”

A “use by” date, on the other hand, means just that – it must be eaten by that date for safety reasons, and it can’t legally be sold after that.

Research by Wasteminz for the Love Food Hate Waste campaign found households that waste a lot of food are more likely to perceive that a “best before” date means it must be eaten or thrown away by that date.

Mirosa says increased reliance on the “best before” date as an indicator of food safety is in part due to a loss of cooking and food-handling skills, with some people “so reliant on the sticker that even though the food still smells and looks perfectly good to eat, they are scared to do so”.

Beware the mould

The quest to end kitchen waste has produced some ingenious ideas: limp lettuce soup, potato peel chips and banana peel cake are among the suggestions put forward by the Love Food Hate Waste campaign for repurposing food that would normally be destined for the bin.

But there are limits. Those with a cast-iron digestive system may regard mould-specked bread as the raw material for toast, or furry growth on the top of the jam as something to be scraped off to reach the good stuff underneath, but University of Otago microbiologist Phil Bremer urges caution.

“The problem with mould is unless you are expert – and there are very few experts in the world – it’s very hard to tell what species it is, and some produce toxins that are really quite dangerous. They can cause allergic reactions and respiratory disease. They also produce aflatoxins that can cause quite severe liver damage, and some are carcinogens.

“Most aren’t, but the problem is most of us can’t tell them apart. For the price of a slice of bread, why risk it?”

The best way to protect your bread is freeze it, and don’t buy more than you need, says Bremer.

“As a kid, if the jam got mould on the top, you’d scoop the top off and carry on eating it. But now we are concerned the mould’s toxins can be water-soluble and can diffuse into foods, and we can’t be sure how far they diffuse in. So we would say you can cut [mould] off hard cheeses, and things like carrots and pumpkins, as long as you’ve got a nice clean margin of about 1cm around and below the mould. But anything that has a lot of water, like jam, soft cheeses or cooked casserole, you don’t know how far those toxins have diffused in.”

As for preventing bacterial growth on food, cold is key. “The thing that keeps our chicken and our meat safe to eat up to their ‘use by’ date is the fact it’s kept cold and that we heat it above 72°C before consumption. Things such as E. coli, salmonella and staphylococcus won’t grow below 5°C. So by keeping food cold, we are stopping the pathogens that are potentially on them from increasing in number.”

Rebecca Culver, front, with Just Zilch volunteers: “We have a really wide range of customers.” Photo/Sharon Bennett
Rebecca Culver, front, with Just Zilch volunteers: “We have a really wide range of customers.” Photo/Sharon Bennett

Free for all

Rebecca Culver had been made redundant and was volunteering for a Palmerston North organisation that provided community meals when she started going the extra mile to get surplus food into the hands of those who needed it. She discovered that at the end of the day, there was often bread left over that was fed to pigs, so she started taking it door to door around the city, offering it to anyone who wanted it.

Some people were suspicious about the unbidden bread, but generally the gift was “really well received”, she says.

Out of that experience came the idea of setting up a “free shop”, to which people could come to get food that others had decided was surplus.

After nine months of research, she set up Just Zilch, which collects perishable food from bakeries, cafes, supermarkets and food manufacturers, and opens its doors for an hour and a half each day so “shoppers” can help themselves – no questions asked.

“We have a really wide range of customers,” says Culver. “We get people who are unemployed, as you’d expect, but also a lot of people who are employed who are just having trouble making ends meet. There are single mums, families with kids, couples with no kids.”

Culver says one of the organisation’s core tenets is that those who come to the door are welcomed and not judged. “Everyone has times of need. Even if you are in a job, stuff happens. Kids have to go on school camp, the car needs a warrant of fitness, the fridge breaks down. We say, ‘Hey, come and get some food and it will at the very least help you through until next month.’”

For the shop’s first four years, its premises – in a disused service station – and electricity were provided free by petrol retailer Gull. When the lease ran out last year, it moved to a building provided by Palmerston North City Council for a peppercorn rent.

As is the case with other food rescue organisations, volunteers are the key to Just Zilch’s operation: 50-60 people are rostered to collect and sort food and staff the shop.

“Every day we would have thousands of dollars’ worth of stock come through our shop,” says Culver. “We get 140 loaves of bread from Goodman Fielder alone every day. We get pallets of yogurt – it might be one pallet one week and eight the next – from the manufacturer.”

Sometimes the products are unsaleable because they have been mislabelled or not made precisely to the standard recipe.

Just Zilch has received 134,000 customer visits since it began, and on a typical day it sees 140 “shoppers”. Culver says its location on a busy Palmerston North city corner has helped put the spotlight on the level of need in the community.

Too good to go

Half the food we put in the rubbish each year is edible. It consists mostly of fresh vegetables and fruit – including 18 million bananas – and 20 million loaves of bread. We bin:

• 79kg of uneaten food – that’s enough to fill three supermarket trolleys; and it’s worth:

• $563 per household; or

• $872 million for the country.

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