This week Tesco announced that it generates 28,500 tonnes of food waste a year and the average household throws away £700 worth of edible rubbish. But why is this happening at a time when demand from food banks is soaring, and growing numbers of households are suffering financially?
It probably came as no surprise to most of us to learn this week that bagged salads are among the most wasted of foods.
When Tesco revealed on Monday that more than two-thirds of all such salads are thrown out – by customers and stores – the company said it would be ending some of its multi-buys and developing smaller bags.
It will also remove ‘display until’ dates from fresh fruit and vegetables (up to 40% of apples are wasted) and plans to reduce the amount of bread on display (just under half of bakery items end up being thrown out).
Customers are to be offered tips on how to use leftovers and the correct way to store perishable foods.
The not-for-profit company WRAP, which works with businesses, individuals and local authorities to reduce waste, develop sustainable products and use resources in an efficient way, has said that a staggering 15m tonnes of food waste is generated in the UK each year.
Quite clearly we are all buying too much and supermarkets are stocking too much.
A coincidental survey into food waste by fridge manufacturer Samsung, published last week, found that the UK has become a nation of ‘overshoppers’.
Research among 2,000 consumers discovered that half of Yorkshire and Humberside respondents chuck food away because they are confused about ‘best before’ dates and nearly half cook too much food and end up throwing it away.
People in this region are the least likely to plan their main meals for a week and 44% admitted that they occasionally throw away unopened packs of fruit or food that has gone bad.
Samsung says that more than 80% of consumers don’t use their fridge properly to maximise food shelf-life and the survey also revealed a general ignorance of what types of foods can be frozen. In fact, frozen food can be just as nutritious and is far less prone to waste.
It would seem that the thriftiness of by-gone generations is a thing of the past.
Ironically, while the ‘overshoppers’ are over-filling their trolleys, a growing number of people are finding themselves in such dire financial circumstances that they are relying on food banks.
In the last 12 months alone, The Welcome Centre’s food bank at Huddersfield Methodist Mission, has seen demand almost double.
Last year the centre handed out 5,600 food packs. By the end of this year it expects to have given out more than 10,000. A decade ago the charity provided less than 1,000. Donations are only made to those with a referral and all recipients must prove their need.
Through an organisation called FareShare, food banks who have signed up to the scheme receive donations of surplus products from the food and drink industry. A number of supermarkets also allow direct customer donations and will permit fundraising in their stores.
However, according to Karen Selley, manager of The Welcome Centre, some supermarkets are more supportive than others.
She is particularly critical of Tesco and describes it as “the least helpful supermarket in town.”
“Sainsbury’s have been more supportive and used to give us bread and other near-date items, but I understand that they now have a staff shop and they are putting it in there. It’s related to the credit crunch.
“Marks & Spencer are fantastic and let us do collections there regularly. They have also recently been collecting tins for us at the Waterloo store.
“And at Asda we recently collected six trolley loads of food donated by customers.”
Such is the increase in the numbers needing food packs that the food bank is in the process of moving into new, more spacious, premises adjacent to the Methodist Mission.
“Unfortunately our rent is going to be twice as much,” said Karen, “but we need more room and couldn’t stay where we were.”
This contrast between waste and want is something that appalls many.
Consumer behaviour expert David Harvey, a senior lecturer in strategy and marketing at the University of Huddersfield, says this week’s revelations from Tesco are a reminder that we live in an extremely wasteful society: “Yet at the same time more and more families are struggling to put food on the table and food banks seem to be here to stay.”
But he doubts the sincerity of supermarkets who says they want to reduce family food waste.
He said: “Along with other big supermarkets, Tesco has built its marketing strategy on the extensive use of in-store promotions such as three for the price of two. They have trained a whole generation of shoppers to over-shop in order to keep their incredibly efficient supply chains running.”
His view that consumers are also to blame, by demanding perfectly-shaped and packaged food, is shared by chef Stephen Jackson (pictured inset) a former restaurateur and now proprietor of the T&Cake cafe in Almondbury, who believes consumers need to change their attitudes.
He explained: “The public needs to get used to seeing and buying non-standard-looking fruit and vegetables so that supermarkets don’t end up throwing them away. People should stop buying bagged salads and buy whole lettuces to make their own salads; and we shouldn’t be scared of ‘use by’ dates. If something smells good enough to eat then it probably is.”
Stephen is also concerned that Britain has adopted American eating habits – cooking or ordering more than they we can comfortably consume.
“It’s a cultural thing,” says Stephen, “and we seem to be becoming more American. Because they produce everything they need they think it’s okay to leave it on their plates, whereas we have to import a lot of food.
“I was brought up by parents and grandparents who thought you should clean your plate – it was the last vestige of rationing. But that doesn’t seem to be the case now.”
His advice to householders seeking to reduce fresh food waste is to buy smaller quantities and follow the example of restaurant chefs.
“We use a lot of clingfilm, storage tubs and bags to keep things fresh. Fridges will dehydrate uncovered salad leaves and vegetables,” he added.
A spokesman for Tesco told The Examiner:
“We donate all of our fresh surplus food from our fresh distribution centres and dotcom stores to food redistribution charity FareShare. This partnership will give FareShare 7 million meals for over 1,000 charities over a year. The surplus food FareShare redistributes is never past its ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date.
“At a store level we generate very little waste as our leading store ordering system helps us to predict the amount of food we are going to need and any surplus that is generated is reduced to clear. However, we are working with FareShare to trial donating surplus at a store level to understand if there is a small level of surplus food that we might be able to pass on to charity.
“When food is not fit for human consumption, we convert it to animal feed or recover energy from food waste through a process of anaerobic digestion or incineration.”
Previous generations knew what it was to be thrifty with food.
In the first half of the 20th century it was common for people to grow some of their own fruits and vegetables.
Today, allotments are once again popular and there has been a surge of interest in vegetable gardening generally.
According to Kim Warren, Food Education Officer at Stirley Community Farm in Huddersfield, this is important for reconnecting people with where food comes from.
“If you invest in growing something from scratch you are far more likely to appreciate it and far less likely to waste it,” she says.
Kim was horrified at this week’s revelations over supermarket and home food waste.
“The statistic on salad leaves was particularly horrendous,” she said. “We grow a massive range of winter salad crops here, which are expensive to buy but very easy to produce on a tiny patch of land. Then you can pick the leaves when you need them instead of wasting them by leaving them in the fridge.
“I’ve even grown some in an old tyre. Anyone can do it.”
Kim and her colleagues run regular workshops and events, host open days and have a regular weekly session on Tuesdays for people wanting to help in the vegetable garden.
“People can come here and learn what to do,” she explained. “One of the things we are concentrating on is trying to connect people with their food, with farming and the wildlife that’s there to do the natural job of pest control.
“Supermarkets have conditioned us to believe that food has to look a certain way and it has to be perfect but when you grow your own you will use the less-than-perfect food – apples that have spots on them, for instance. We make preserves at the farm.
“Another problem is that supermarkets sell large vegetables like cabbages and cauliflowers – all one size – that are really too big for one person to eat. Instead you can grow vegetables such as kale or sprouting broccoli that will over-winter. You can pick what you need from them when you need it.”
Kim, who used to work in the recycling industry, also believes that many households could be recycling more vegetable waste on compost heaps.
“The compost improves the soil for growing the following year,” she said. “By growing your own in soil that has been looked after properly you get better food. The Soil Association says that commercially-grown plants don’t have as many nutrients as they once did.”
Nutritionist Claire O’Meara runs a fitness and lifestyle studio in Scissett with her husband Brendan.
She is a voluntary ambassador for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, an organisation that seeks to promote healthy home-
Jamie’s new television series, Money Saving Meals, aims to help families reduce food waste and eat thriftily.
Claire says revelations of how much food supermarkets waste will have annoyed many.
“But it’s not just supermarkets wasting food it is households too!” she said.
She blames the hectic fast-paced 21st century for the fact that too many shoppers simply buy too much and give too little thought to what they put in their trolleys.
A shopping list, she believes, is the key to less waste. “And then you’ve got to stick to it and not get tempted by the two-for-one deals.”
She suggests spending 20 minutes on a Sunday afternoon looking through the fridge and food cupboards and then drawing up a menu plan and shopping list.
Claire, who offers dietary advice on www.thelifestylestudios.com/nutrition, is particularly well-organised but says we all need to take responsibility for what we eat and buy.
She explained: “I have a delivery every Saturday from my local Huddersfield veg man of a mixed box for two people of fruit and veg. Then on a Sunday I spend two hours in the evening making meals for the week and batch freezing to ensure I use everything and nothing goes to waste.”
Her top tips for reducing food waste in the home are:
Freeze peeled over-ripe bananas instead of letting them rot. Once frozen they can be blended with vanilla ice cream to flavour it or used to make a banana and milk smoothie. Many fruits can be frozen and used like this.
Vegetables going out of date can be made into a soup or casserole and frozen. If you find you are throwing away a lot of soggy vegetables then buy packs of frozen, ready-to-cook veg – no waste and very versatile.
Batch cook. Rather than serving up huge portions that won’t get eaten, freeze surplus meals or put a portion away for lunch the next day.
It’s possible to freeze bread, either on the day of purchase or when it has gone stale (but not mouldy). Stale bread can be used to make breadcrumbs for stuffings and coatings.