Surplus, damaged and rejected merchandise, often described as food waste, is a problem for every part of the fresh produce chain from grower to retailer. Criticism over the amount of food being thrown away is becoming ever more vociferous. Over the past year, attention has been increasingly focused on ways of dealing with food waste, with some high profile initiatives appearing. Produce Business UK takes a look at what is happening.
No definitive figures exist for the amount of surplus fresh produce created each year. How could it? It’s virtually impossible to predict what fresh produce will be left over following harvesting, how much will be damaged or rejected by suppliers whether it be caterers, wholesalers or retailers and then how much gets discards by the consumer.
What we do know is an seismic volumes of produce gets thrown out due either because it hasn’t been eaten in time or because it hasn’t been sold before the ‘best before’ date runs out.
Industry estimates suggest that up to 40% of fruit and vegetables are rejected before they reach the store.
New revenue streams
Some growers have managed to turn surpluses to their advantage, by using the produce to make new revenue streams. Typical of these initiatives include Ogilvy Spirits in Scotland where surplus potatoes were used to make vodka, while a Herefordshire blackcurrant farmer, Jo Hilditch, created British Cassis.
For the remainder, the choice has been very much between simply turning the waste into compost, sending it for incineration or landfill. Awareness of alternatives has not been great until the past year or so.
Real Junk Food Project
The high profile media coverage surrounding the opening of the Real Junk Food Project supermarket focused the attention of both consumers and trade. The supermarket facility forms part of the Real Junk Food Project warehouse in Leeds. Forget design and décor, this is a unit that consists of a corner of a 6,000 sq ft industrial warehouse and utilises industrial tiered racks and lots of crates containing produce. People choose what they want and pay what they can, or even provide services such as weighing and shelf stacking in lieu of money.
Fresh produce forms a key part of the merchandise on offer, especially tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, grapes, bananas, oranges, lemons, broccoli and aubergines. All the fruit and vegetables originates from supermarkets, restaurants, catering companies, allotments and growers and has been rejected for one reason or another. Ordinarily it would be dumped.
A second pop-up store opened for a short period over Christmas in Sheffield. The Real Junk Food Project would like to see more stores opening in other cities, ideally wherever a Real Junk Food Café is located. These cafes use surplus and rejected food to create meals.
Fuel for School
An allied project is Fuel for School, which involves sending surplus fruit, vegetables and other food from supermarkets and wholesalers to local schools. Fuel for Schools currently provides food for 12,000 schoolchildren a week. Typical of these schools is Richmond Hill Primary, Leeds, which is located in a deprived area. Prior to the opening of a junk food café via the Fuel for Schools project, many of the children did not have a hot meal for days on end.
It is an area which headteacher, Nathan Atkinson, describes as a “food desert” since it is impossible to buy fresh fruit and vegetables locally. Discovering that there was a local food wholesaler, they contacted them and were instantly given 27 boxes of bananas and ten boxes of cucumbers. It is a relationship that has continued and the school now provides breakfast every day for 650 pupils, has its own café and a weekly food shop where surplus produce can be purchased by local families.
Other projects operating in different ways exist nationwide. Some are very well established but have had a low profile. Typical of these projects is Company Shop. Founded 40 years ago, it is a typical old style factory shop in which only certain groups within the community can use. These customers are workers at associated businesses, or who work in the emergency services and NHS. Prices in store tend to be up to 705% cheaper than in a conventional supermarket.
It has recently begun opening Community Shops designed to help those on the cusp of food poverty. People have to apply for membership and meet specific criteria such as living in areas of deprivation, receive Government income support and are prepared to sign up to a programme designed to make positive changes in their lives.
Company Shop says that it is now the UK’s largest re-distributors of surplus products, dealing with around 30,000 tonnes of food annually. Within that product base, fresh produce is much in demand. Unlike The Real Junk Food Produce, Company Shop actually pay for the surplus produce. As PBUK reported in 2015, the company is interested in developing links with the fresh produce industry. Company Shop is an expanding organisation currently handling about a tenth of the surplus produce available. They are determined to do more.
Church groups are increasingly active in dealing with surplus produce. In Felixstowe, the BASIC Life charity is running regular pop-up shops in local churches. Graham Denny from BASIC Life explains: “Not everyone who needs food fits into the guidelines for using foodbanks. People might not want to use them because the food donated is not food they eat, for example they may be vegetarians or on special diets, or they are not registered with the local council having maybe just lost their job.”
“We felt there was a need for a more relaxed method where no questions were asked. A lot of our customers are trying to avoid using payday loans. We established links with Fareshare, Tesco, Morrisons and local growers. We have a system where people buy a bag for £1.The maximum allowed is two bags for £2.”
“Most people can afford that and it gives them some pride, and encourages them to shop wisely. They fill the bags with whatever they like, giving the equivalent of £20 or £30 of food. It gives them choice and encourages them to buy fresh food. We find fresh produce is very popular, especially cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli and lettuce.
“Green produce generally is very much in demand. People queue for up to an hour to take part. We want to roll this idea out throughout Suffolk and further afield.”
Many farmers and growers are registering with Feedback’s Gleaning Network as a way of dealing with leftover produce following harvesting. Gleaning refers to the age old practice of people coming into fields after a crop has been harvested and taking anything that has been left behind. The Gleaning Network is a modern day equivalent.
It mobilises volunteers to glean the fields, collecting produce and delivering it to various charitable partners. Feedback’s Dan Woolley explained how their system works.
“We have a large database of farmers and growers and we contact them around two weeks before their crop is to be harvested and say we are ready to come and glean if required,” he says.
“Most of the work is in the autumn when we glean orchards and vegetables, but gleaning takes place all year round. Root crops like potatoes and carrots for example might slip through the sides of the machine, the tractors miss corners as they turn or may miss a row as they pass up and down a field.
“When products are hand picked such as broccoli, leeks or cauliflower, some of the produce may not be picked for the supermarket because it is too small or the wrong colour. We get farmers saying we have five fields of broccoli, and only have orders for four fields. We go in and pick the rest.”
Farmers and growers can register on the database to be contacted around harvest time, or can simply call and see if a group of volunteers can be mustered to come and glean their fields.
One or two weeks notice is ideal for the Network to mobilise its teams. There are no costs to farmers. All costs are covered by Feedback which coordinates logistics, including vans, containers for produce, harvesting equipment and transport for volunteers.
They also help farmers to deal with harvested produce that cannot be sold, by connecting them with commercial outlets like Rubies in the Rubble who make relishes from discarded fresh fruit and vegetables.
The Gleaning Network deals with an impressive amount of produce. From its foundation in 2012 to the end of 2016, it gleaned 288 tonnes of produce, equivalent to more than three million portions of fruit and vegetables. It has over 1,500 volunteers on its database.
At present, the Gleaning Network covers London, Kent, Sussex, the North West (Lancashire & Merseyside), the West of England (Herefordshire, Somerset, Worcestershire) and Eastern England (Cambridgeshire, Fenland, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex). The intention is to expand the network steadily to cover Scotland, Yorkshire and Wales.