It’s a predicament most of us have had to face; staring at a questionable packet of vegetables in the fridge, you debate whether to investigate further into their edibility – weighing up the benefit of having something to eat against the horrifying risk of revealing some putrid, furry underbelly – or to, more effortlessly, chuck them. And, though I’m sure many of us would [guiltily] choose the latter on the basis of haste and practicality, there is an urgent necessity for Britain to change its attitude around food. It is a real blessing that the vast majority of Britons have enough to eat, but indeed a curse that we all too often have too much to eat and fail to place the value food that we should. Levels of food waste in the UK have reached horrifying levels; according to the Waste Resources Action Programme, Britain throws away 7.3 million tonnes of food every year. Notwithstanding the detrimental effect to the environment, this degree of wastage is also financially detrimental, costing the average UK household around £60 a month. A huge amount of this waste comes from supermarkets, as between them Asda, Co-operative Food, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose disposed of over 200,000 tonnes of food in 2013. It is an endless source of bewilderment to me that Britain has not already followed France’s lead in tackling food waste; in February 2016 the French senate unanimously passed a law that banned supermarkets from destroying or throwing away unsold food, instead forcing them to donate it to food banks, charities or else for it to be made into animal feed. Although no such legislation exists in Britain, there are several organisations which strive to put unwanted food to use; The Real Junk Food Project’s Leeds café alone fed 10,000 people using 20 tonnes of unwanted food in the space of just 10 months, which has sparked a worldwide movement of pay-as-you-feel cafes that divert wasted food into delicious and healthy dishes. On top of this, The People’s Fridge (London’s first community fridge launched in Brixton in February of this year) provides an outlet for local businesses to donate spare food in a bid to cut food waste, encourage food sharing and tackle food poverty in Britain, which is an increasing source of concern seeing as 8.4 million people in Britain live in food insecurity.
Having said all of this, what is more alarming is that supermarkets only contribute a mere 1.3% to total UK food waste; it is therefore exceedingly clear that the gross extent of food waste stems not from commercial businesses, but from our own homes. I’ll admit to the occasional unnecessary food chuck, but I grew up with family who were almost frighteningly frugal when it comes to food. I have a particularly perturbing memory of my father scraping a thick, downy layer of blue-green mould off a raspberry jelly with his teaspoon before eagerly tucking in; or there’s my Gran, who was known to defensively insist that the can of soup – which was priced in shillings – which my brother had drawn from her pantry was ‘absolutely fine!’ Admittedly, their habits near the extreme, but nevertheless the British need to turn their stiff upper lip to their attitudes surrounding food. To start with, don’t over-buy; the majority of food waste is stuff that we simply just never get round to eating. On top of this, we should be braver with the food we already have that is somewhat ‘questionable’; from my experience, if it looks alright, smells alright, and tastes alright, then it’s probably alright. Sometimes, all you need is to be a bit more imaginative with the sad, wilting food in your fridge; overripe fruit can be made into a smoothie or a coulis, drooping vegetables can be whizzed into a soup, and, dare I say it, mould can be scraped off cheese providing it’s minimal and you’re hungry. In fact, I positively look forward to finding stale bread in the bread bin, which holds the potential for croutons, breadcrumbs, French toast, even bread and butter pudding. I draw the line at dodgy chicken or dodgy rice – they have to go.
Of course, restaurants also have a part to play in the food waste debate, throwing away 900,000 tonnes of food each year in Britain. However, there is hope. Pret-a-Manger’s company policy demands that all of their food is made freshly and that none is thrown away – at the end of each day, Pret donates everything that they can to the homeless instead of throwing it in the bin like all other restaurant chains. And, true to form, Selfridges has instilled some glamour into the food waste debate with their sell-out pop-up restaurant WastED; the New York chef Dan Barber – alongside several guests including Alain Ducasse and Yotam Ottolenghi – has created a five-week menu that transforms leftover food (such as pockmarked potatoes, vegetable trimmings and tinned-chickpea water) into fine-dining food, the star dish being a whole charred cod’s head.
The fact is, the British government puts far more emphasis on sell-by-dates and the laws surrounding them than food wastage legislation and redistribution initiatives. What we must do is recognise the bizarre imbalance between Britain’s increasing food waste levels and the rising number of people living in food insecurity, and lend more support to organisations that work to balance this out. Far be it from me to contradict ‘official’ food health standards, but, after all, we did manage to survive perfectly well before the advent of the sell-by date sticker; perhaps we should re-assess the iron grip this sticker has grown to hold over our lives.