Food Waste vs. Food Scarcity in the UK

Charlotte Haworth
Thursday, 13th February 2014

Charlotte Haworth explores the issue of food shortage and the increasing figures of food waste, and looks at the organisations trying to connect the two.

There is often talk on the news of world food shortages and an inability for everyone to find enough to eat (1) (2). What is perhaps less well-publicised is the massive amount of food which is perfectly fine to eat, but which goes to waste every day.

Food surplus or food shortage? Last year the a report published by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) found that between 30% and 50% or 1.2-2 billion tonnes of food produced around the world ends up in landfill before it even reaches the consumer (3).

In the UK, the amount of food waste produced is an estimated 15 million tonnes per year (4). With food prices themselves continuing to rise, and growing reports of families unable to afford enough to eat, there appears to be a clear gap in between hungry people on one side, and wasteful food companies on the other. In many ways this gap is completely avoidable; all it would take is some concise organisation and (crucially) increased communication between all involved. While the gap remains, however, many are seeking individual solutions to the incongruity by taking action for themselves.

An example of this is the growing popularity of recycling food from supermarkets and other large food outlets once it has been deemed unsellable but remains edible. This practice, known variously as 'bin-raiding', 'skipping', 'dumpster diving' (in North America), 'recycling', 'freeganism', and many other names, has been the source of some controversy with food companies in the UK, although perceptions appear to be shifting. 

Food recycling: not a crime?

In 2011, Sacha Hall was taken to court by supermarket giant Tesco and charged with the obscure crime of "theft by finding" for recycling food from one of the chain’s bins (5). Hall faced a six-month jail sentence or a £5000 fine. The case received quite a lot of publicity, a lot of which was negative for Tesco (6) which may have influenced the court’s decision to release Hall on a conditional discharge (7).

Even more recently, three men in North London were charged by Iceland under an ambiguous section of the 1824 Vagrancy Act after they were found recycling food from a bin at a branch of supermarket chain Iceland (8). However, on January 29th this year, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped their charges, ending up deeming that it was “not in the public interest” (9) (10) to prosecute the men. 

This is a significant decision which illuminates the shifting perceptions of what is acceptable in terms of utilising food waste: the CPS’s decision can be seen as basically an admission that taking food from bins is not a crime and will now set a precedent, hopefully encouraging supermarkets to be more transparent with their food waste and with people making use of it.

Making connections

Amidst this shift in legal perceptions the UK has a growing movement of organisations intent on helping to reduce food waste and at the same time in helping people who cannot afford food. 

One of the main problems of industrial food waste, as well as the confusing legal situation, is the lack of connection between those with too much food and those with not enough. Plan Zheroes is a networking website which has been set up to address this (11). Plan Zheroes’ database is an interactive map, where potential donors and recipients can sign up, and then very easily find groups or companies in their local area who can potentially meet their needs (12). Plan Zheroes is being pioneered in London but the interactive map concept can clearly be applied anywhere, and is a key part of bridging the gap between surplus food producers and needy recipients. 

Another group addressing this issue is Fareshare, a charity who make use of surplus food from bulk suppliers by redistributing it to community groups, charities and other organisations which need food for their members but do not necessarily have the funds to buy it (13).

Fareshare is fast growing and according to their website, “Every day an average of 51,000 people benefit from the service FareShare provides” (13). Because of its size and its charitable status the group are still subject to legal restrictions and grey areas and so there are some groups who may be missing out on becoming donors or recipients. 

Working together to find solutions

In many places, however, even more solutions are being found. One example comes from the Food Waste Collective, part of Hanover Action for Sustainable Living, in Brighton (14), who organise, amongst other things, food redistribution events which bring together the surplus food from donors with groups and organisations who need it. 

The most recent of these events was in November, and was such a success that hardly any food was left over at the end (15). They aim to hold one every three months and the next one is coming up in just a few weeks, on the 28th of February (16).

The event, called “Good Food for Good Causes”, will utilise a huge surplus of dry goods from a local bulk food supplier (who wish to remain anonymous) by redistributing the food to a diverse range of charities, community food groups and other organisations; thus turning the donor’s problem of having too much stock into a very profitable solution for a large number of people.

The event, and indeed the entire collective, is run by volunteers. In many ways it is following the ‘skipping’ concept by going on the idea that we can take action ourselves to tackle food waste; but taking it a step up so that rather than just individuals benefitting it is a whole range of groups who can be helped all at the same time. By working together the Food Waste Collective can deal with a much larger amount of food waste than an individual ‘skipper’ can; and redistribute it in a much more efficient way.

The Food Waste Collective was basically made possible by a donor approaching someone in the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership (17), who run a ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ (18) campaign. Now the Food Waste Collective is a vibrant community group with a growing number of members, all of them participating in the process of utilising food instead of wasting it.

Coming soon to a place near…you?

Perhaps you work for a similar organisation to the Food Partnership, and therefore have a potential contact point for donors. Possibly your organisation regularly produces more food waste than necessary. Or maybe you are passionate about making connections, and willing to research the best ways of bringing together food surplus with needy recipients in your area. Whatever your capacity, if you feel you agree with the Food Waste Collective’s take on providing solutions, it is entirely possible that a similar group is needed in your area. Why not be a part of it yourself?

For more inspiration, the 'Good Food for Good Causes' event will be happening on Friday, 28th February from 11am - 5pm, in the Old Municipal Market, Circus Street, Brighton (provisional venue). A diverse range of volunteer opportunities are available; from photographers to demonstrator chefs, so if you’re around in Brighton that day feel free to find out more about participating by visiting the HASL website (14) or the Food Waste Collective Facebook page (19).

(Photo thanks to Josie Jeffrey.)

Further resources

Watch: Zero waste and the art of living off-grid

Food waste - you gotta be joking!

Plan Zhereos - Surplus food for those in need

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1. The Guardian, 13/12/2012. Vidal, J: 'UN warns of looming worldwide food crisis in 2013'

2. World Bank, 2014. 'Food Security'

3. Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013. “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not”. Institution of Mechanical Engineers: London

4. Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP), 2014. 'Reports - Food waste from all sectors'

5. Daily Mail, 17/2/11. Levy, Andrew: 'In court charged with theft by finding, he woman who took food from a Tesco bin'

6. Facebook, 2011. 'Boycott Tesco for having Sacha Hall arrested'

7. BBC News, 21/06/2011. 'Essex Tesco bin food raid woman gets conditional discharge'

8. Guardian, 28/01/2014. 'Three charged with stealing food from skip behind Iceland supermarket'

9. Guardian, 29/01/2014. 'Prosecutors drop case against men caught taking food from Iceland bins'

10. Crown Prosecution Service, 29/01/2014. “'CPS Statement: Iceland Foods Case'

11. Plan Zheroes, 2014. 'The Idea'

12. Plan Zheroes, 2014. 'Community Map'

13. Fareshare, 2014. 'About Us'

14. Hanover Action for Sustainable Living, 2014. 'Food Waste Collective'

15. Hanover Action for Sustainable Living, 2014. 'Past Events: Dry Goods for Good Causes'

16. Food Waste Collective, 21/1/14. Meeting minutes.

17. Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, 2014. 'About'

18. Love Food Hate Waste, 2014. 'About Us'

19. Facebook, 2014. 'Food waste Collective'