Sharing Surplus Harvests

Charlotte Haworth
Monday, 13th October 2014

How surplus and waste food can be made into delicious food for the whole community.

Autumn is here, and with it the traditional time of harvest and abundance. With the current global food system meaning that we now have international networks transporting our food to us - sometimes over many thousands of miles - this traditional idea of seasonal abundance is losing its meaning.

When you can simply walk into a supermarket at any time of year and buy an apple, the full glory of the turning of the seasons as apples ripen on the trees can be missed.

Nature is still abundant at this time however, even if many of us have forgotten it: a quick walk around the forest, or failing that your local park, can confirm this, with the reddening of hawthorns, swelling of hazels and sweet chestnuts and, if you have a keen eye and are wandering after a rainfall, you can find some oyster mushrooms or ceps peeking out from amongst the roots. Now is the time of year with the most number of edible fungi available (A guide to fungi foraging), though it is only safe to pick them, for yourself and your local ecosystem, if you do your research and forage conscientiously and with respect.

Modern Abundance

The industrialised food systems has produced another kind of abundance also: one which is becoming increasingly well-publicised across UK media but for many remains a relatively unknown phenomena: that of the huge amount of surplus food that is routinely thrown away along the entire supply chain - from farmers to supermarkets and right through to us as consumers. Recently reported by Postive News, MPs are proposing to ban food going to landfills in a bid to save billions for the economy.

There are many groups intercepting this perfectly good food from being thrown away, and who are keen to highlight the issues around why businesses deem it necessary to bin edible foods. With this in mind the Brighton-based Food Waste Collective organised the Surplus Harvest Feast this October, a huge extravaganza of surplus food, that was cooked and served for free to the public with great ceremony and celebration during the community arts festival, the Lantern Fayre.

The Food Waste Collective is, as the name suggests, a collaborative venture. One of the main events is a food re-distribution day, entitled 'Good Food for Good Causes', held quarterly and during which we distribute huge volumes of intercepted dry goods to recipient community groups and charities (for more information see 4). At the previous Good Food for Good Causes food was given to around 38 different groups. 

The aim of the Surplus Harvest Feast was to raise awareness to the large amount of surplus food existing in Brighton and Hove alone. Working alongside Food Warriors and the Real Junk Food Project, the Feast not only fed hungry people but demonstrated how easy and fun it can be. The Feast’s co-ordinator, Debbie Hardy, pointed out, with just a handful of volunteers collecting surplus fruit, vegetables, and dry grains and beans they managed to redirect just under half a tonne of ingredients into around 1200 servings of hot, tasty meals.

The day was bright and sunny and the word had clearly got around. As volunteers scurried around inside the tent making last-minute cooking preparations, locating aprons and ladling meals into serving-pots, interested festival-goers began crowding in so thickly that the stewards had to intervene to hold them back. The Great Serving Up was scheduled for 2pm, and at 1.45pm the queue was already stretching out far beyond the food tent’s confines; snaking away across the Level park, and taking up half of the space of the festival. Clearly, the attraction of a free meal was one which was too good to miss.

Debbie explains the aim of the Surplus Feast: "It's two pronged: first, to give a picture to attendees the kinds of surplus going to waste just in the vicinity of the Level, where the festival is taking place. Second, to provide a nice hot nutritious meal for free to people who may need it."

© Saskia Wesnigk-Wood

Sharing Stories

One of my favourite aspects of the Feast is the idea of so many people all eating the same food at the same time. The importance of sharing and appreciating food is something that may get somewhat forgotten in our culture; one reason perhaps why people do not mind throwing it away, because they do not place as much significance on it as they could. In her book Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature, Jules Pretty suggests that it is this appreciation and gratitude that is needed in order to revive our sense of community and re-think our global food networks towards ones of abundance for everyone.

A very simple way to do this is to share a meal with someone; it does not matter who. When we share food we are all connecting to the same primal energy; a fact which we may not consciously notice but which almost invariably affects us both physically and mentally. When we extrapolate this to sharing a meal with hundreds of others, the effects can be quite profound. I certainly felt more of a deep appreciation for the food from the Feast that I ate, knowing how many other happy bellies were being sustained by the exact same fare as mine.

The effect the Feast had on each individual can never be fully known, but it is clear that the reverberations of this action are spreading in many directions. I spoke to a few people briefly about their take on the Feast, with many positive reactions. A large proportion were very keen to get involved with the Food Waste Collective and help with future actions, while some had their own ideas for new creative ways to highlight food surplus and at the same time fulfil the deep human need we have to connect with each other and to the natural world which sustains us. And, perhaps even more importantly, everyone who I spoke to was enjoying the food itself!

Members views on food

Three members of the Food Waste Collective share why they joined the cause:

Debbie Hardy: "It's really heartening to see charities that need food being put in touch with the businesses that have food to donate. It's really good knowing that somewhere in Brighton and Hove, someone who is a service user of a charity is able to enjoy a hot meal and socialise because someone donated some time to bag up and give out some good food."

Charlotte Haworth: "We have so much food waste on one side, and on the other, many hungry people. We are producing enough food globally to feed at least 11 billion people1; and that is using mainly highly inefficient, chemical-intensive mono-cultural farming methods, so the idea of scarcity can really be seen as simply a problem of organisation. Being part of the Food Waste Collective is an excellent and positive way to combat this by providing a link between hungry people and surplus food."

Vera Zakharov: "Food waste for me is part of a bigger passion about food, because in a contemporary living environment where we may be losing our connection to the raw energy which sustains us, that connection is very primal with food. It feels criminal towards the things which sustain us to waste them intentionally."

"While education around these issues is vital, there are a lot of people around Brighton and Hove who are already passionate about the environment and I wanted to give people advice about how they could do more. The Food Waste Collective is a means to connect people who are already doing things individually. In Brighton & Hove restaurants alone waste 8000 tonnes a year which doesn't include retail outlets so this needs to be addressed."

"There is so much community energy here to address the issues and take community action but until recently people did not have these outlets. With the Food Waste Collective we are creating group solutions and group actions to further tackle food waste."

Sharing Food

Vera explains the importance of food sharing events: "I see it as meaningful stunt, in the spirit of 'Feeding the 5K'. There's a power about people taking action together, as they can feel part of a movement, even if they're totally new to these issues. Of equal calibre is that such an action is in the public eye and people take notice. I want to see others in the city, from businesses to council members, becoming more aware of the opportunities which are open to us to make a real social impact around these issues."

This sector faces a lot of obstacles but if we make the effort now we can make these actions easier for others to do, through FWC, other social networks, charities, community groups, and get everyone in this city - and beyond -  to commit to doing something about food surplus.

What people have to recognise is that this food is benefitting people who would not otherwise be the business' customers. Business is not affected by the fact that surplus food is given away and in fact it can be seen as a business' local community responsibility to give their surplus food to those in need; because they too make up the community of which they are a part. If we get a few businesses putting their name to this fantastic action, and seeing that it does not affect their profit, then more will be able to see the deep social importance of giving away food waste.

How to join in 

If you would like to volunteer with the Food Waste Collective, as a cook, performer, photographer or just wish to help, please email foodwastecollective@gmail.com

To keep up with the Food Waste Collective’s work and events, you can join the Food Waste Collective Facebook page.

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat, by Lamberley, P and Oakeshott.

Further resources

For more about the event, visit Charlotte's blog at http://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com

Reduce your food waste - the 100 day challenge

Food waste vs food scarcity

Food waste - you gotta be joking!

Surplus food for those in need

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