One third of all food produced is thrown away, at the same time as one billion people go hungry. Simon Day met some of the people trying to fix our broken food system.
On Monday evenings, when most Auckland restaurants rest, Gemmayze St is consistently host to more than 200 customers. While the award winning Lebanese restaurant is technically closed, its dining room in K Rd’s St Kevin’s Arcade is full, and the chefs in its kitchen are creating a three course menu.
On these nights, instead of the usual hip Auckland dining set, the crowd is mostly made up of the local K Rd community. Many of the diners are experiencing homelessness. Most are vulnerable. Some just desperately need a good feed on a cold winter’s evening. Here, each Monday, they get to have a restaurant quality meal, and they’re asked to only pay what they can, and only if they can.
On a cold autumn Monday, guest chefs from Waiheke Island restaurant Mudbrick have taken over the kitchen for the night, part of a roster of Auckland’s best cooking teams that donate their day off each week. They’re cooking with food that was rescued from around the city, food that would have otherwise gone into the bin.
This is Everybody Eats, a project designed to provide an antidote to our massive food waste problem, and an attempt to address our equally significant food poverty, by bringing people from different backgrounds together over a good meal.
Everybody Eats was started by my old friend Nick Loosley, and I’ve spent the past year periodically joining the team of volunteers on Monday nights. One night I’m signed up to dishes, and I am accompanied at the sink by Daniel, an asylum seeker from Nigeria. For almost three years he’s been pursuing refugee status in New Zealand, and until that happens he’s unable to work. He is volunteering this evening (and almost every Monday since) because he wants to be help those less fortunate than himself. Another week I’m working on the floor serving tables of grateful people who have never before been waited on in a place like this. This is the point: putting people together, breaking social barriers, with good food. But at the same time it’s doing a lot more.
Everybody Eats is the outcome of Loosley’s dissertation for a masters in economics for transition from Schumacher College in Devon. He describes it as a degree in “saving the world from humans”. It’s about trying to come up with ideas to allow us to “transition from our current system to something that works”. His research involved volunteering at food rescue charities and cafés around Europe. Through this research he saw the huge power in feeding and gathering people around food.
“There’s lots of angles something like Everybody Eats comes from. You can make a song and dance about food waste. You can talk about the social problems, the social isolation and not eating together. You can talk about food poverty and the need to feed people nutritious food. And you can talk about the environmental problem of food waste,” Loosley says.
“What I am focused on with Everybody Eats is just to feed people. Take that food that was going to go to waste and put it in people’s stomachs. It needs to be a positive thing, that’s why we called it Everybody Eats.”
When I drop off the gourmet shepherd’s pie to the tables, I take a second to sit with groups and talk about what this food meant to them. Dave has put on a classy overcoat and a scarf for the evening out. He looks stylish and sophisticated, but his face is worn out and tired; he is very thin. “I would have gone without tonight,” he tells me.
At another table I’m told how being served good food, by volunteers who are kind and wear smiles “makes me feel human again. People come together and meet each other. I feel normal again.”
A table of four young people have found themselves stuck in Auckland, unable to afford the bus home to Taranaki. They’ve got no money for food either. “We wouldn’t be eating if it wasn’t for this feed. This is the fullest I’ve been in ages,” Ruiha tells me.
At other tables men and women straight from work sit with groups of people from far less fortunate circumstances. I listen as they tell each other about their lives, their jobs, their homes, their families.
“Food is really powerful for bringing people together. For me it is the only way to get people from different cultures, and different backgrounds to be a part of something together,” Loosley says.
“Food equalises everything. It puts you on a level playing field. The more you learn about someone’s life the more you understand. I think that is really positive for society, for rich and poor, to feel more equal with each other. There’s lots and lots of research that says the more equal we are, the more happy we are.”
I spend a Monday with Loosley hunting down the food to be served that night, meeting people working in food rescue, and learning about the broken food system that has created the mandate for Everybody Eats. Our day begins at 9am on Monday morning as he and I set off in his Nissan Leaf to rescue food. First we visit a New World that has partnered with Everybody Eats to donate the supermarket’s excess food to the project. We fill two trolleys with frozen mince, dozens of lettuce heads, potatoes, bananas, and pumpkin. The meat is past its best before date, some of the outer leaves of the lettuce are brown, and the bananas are freckled with black marks, but they are all very edible. It’s good food. But if it we hadn’t collected it, it would have most likely ended up in a landfill.
We then visit food rescue charity KiwiHarvest (where Loosley used to work) to collect boxes of fruit and veges and tins of tomatoes. They’ve got a giant chilled food storage container full of food that would otherwise have been thrown out. Instead KiwiHarvest collects it and distributes it, so it finds people in need. They’re an essential middleman between the organisations like Everybody Eats (and many other wonderful social services and charities feeding people with food waste) and the suppliers, manufacturers and retailers with surplus food.
We rescue food that is good enough to eat but not to sell, food that’s been mislabelled, or is unattractive. Food that’s not going to be eaten but is good to eat,” says Deborah Manning CEO and founder of KiwiHarvest.
“You need organisations like KiwiHarvest who find the surplus food and give us the chance to send it out to people who need it.”
Food waste occurs at every part of the food chain, Manning tells me. When it’s grown farmers create a buffer in case there’s bad weather. During packaging and manufacturing, mislabelling creates waste. As retailers aggregate the food, items that don’t meet consumers expectations of what things should look like are rejected – because they won’t be purchased. Then in the home huge amounts of food finds its way into the bin.
That’s why KiwiHarvest is at capacity and they’re often being forced to turn food away.
“We can’t keep up with the demand for our service. We have waiting lists at both ends. Our capacity is limited by container space and chillers that we have. To accept more food we need bigger warehousing and chilling capacity. We know the food is there, we know where it is, we just need to be able to go and get it,” says Manning.
Throwing food into landfill has been described as a moral, economic, and environmental outrage. But the modern food system is incredibly wasteful. The UN estimates around one third of all food we produce is wasted. Every year New Zealanders throw away more than 120,000 tonnes of food.
It’s a moral outrage when there’s almost one billion malnourished people globally and we produce enough to food to feed them, but it’s being thrown away. It’s an economic outrage because of the wasted investment in producing something that is destined for the bin. It’s an environmental outrage because putting food in the landfill produces methane gas causing climate change, and the production of food itself is already highly carbon intensive. Producing emissions making a product from the earth to then transport it on a long journey back to the earth to produce more emissions is just embarrassing.
Supermarkets hate food waste. It’s throwing profit away. These giant food retailers have intricate forecasting equations to try and predict the exact amount of food consumers will want each day. Informed by research and data supermarkets have created a science to predict exactly how much food they’re going to sell.
But there are things they can’t predict. When I speak to Kate Porter, the head of Countdown’s food rescue programme, the weather in Auckland has unexpectedly turned icy cold, and there is a downturn in the sale of items like salads and ice cream, as customers move to winter warmers like soups and casseroles. This is the frontlines of retail food waste.
“The best way to reduce food waste is getting that as close to perfect as possible. We monitor the weather, the school holidays, if there is a big rugby game on, all of that has to be thought about,” says Porter.
“At Countdown, we are here to sell food and obviously to make a return on our investment, that is how our business works, so it’s not in our interest to have waste.”
But the forecasting isn’t perfect and waste is inevitable. And around one third of waste from all the Countdown stores is still sent to landfill – in the last financial year this totalled approximately 14,100 tonnes. This is heartbreaking when so many New Zealanders are experiencing food poverty. This winter the Salvation Army is expecting its busiest winter season yet, with 30,000 families predicted to need some sort of food support. So Countdown is trying to make sure surplus food finds a belly. Its ultimate mission is to reach zero food wasted by 2020.
The supermarket is partnering with charities and food rescue programmes to make sure as much food as possible is getting eaten. And they’re investing in developing the fledgling New Zealand food rescue scene.
KiwiHarvest gets more than 40% of their supply from Countdown. Their national food rescue partner is The Salvation Army, which distributed more than 53,000 food parcels to New Zealanders in need last year. Across the country Countdown partners with a combination of food rescue charities and food banks – including Fair Food, Auckland; Just Zilch in Palmerston North; Kaibosh in Wellington and Lower Hutt; Kaivolution, Hamilton, Good Neighbour in Tauranga; Kiwi Community Assistance, Tawa; and City Harvest in Christchurch.
But relative to the UK, Europe and even Australia, New Zealand’s capacity to collect and redistribute food is limited. It’s still a relatively new phenomenon. So in the last two years Countdown has invested nearly $300,000 in growing the capacity and capability of local food rescue organisations. Earlier this month they announced the recipients of their 2018 food rescue fund that will allow these organisations to grow their capacity, because the demand is huge.
“While each works independently and in their own way, primarily food rescue organisations are a conduit between food and other food banks, community groups and social agencies,” says Porter. Some of the larger organisations, such as Kaibosh, Fair Food and KiwiHarvest will have upwards of 60 community groups and agencies that they are supporting every week. Within this, hundreds if not thousands of people are given food that Countdown has helped to provide.
Now, Countdown hosts an annual conference that has created an environment where these charities share knowledge and share food. If one organisation gets a bulk donation and doesn’t need the food, or can’t cope with it, Countdown has helped it get distributed to people who can use it.
Last year Countdown introduced the ‘Odd Bunch’ which takes those pieces of “imperfect” produce that consumers have been programmed to avoid and makes them available at a cheaper price. It’s about changing habits, cutting waste, taking more produce from growers and making healthy food more affordable. And it’s about changing the way we think about food. So far the Odd Bunch has saved around 500 tonnes of produce from the waste stream.
These programmes are leading to innovative solutions to social problems. In Hamilton a youth training course saw attendance rise dramatically when they introduced a hot meal. At a home for teenage mums in Wellington, food rescue adds to what they can give them and it teaches them cooking skills. In West Auckland there is a programme for teenage dads where they get food and learn to cook too.
“About a month ago I was down in at one of our stores in Hamilton and one of our team told us about how his family had previously relied on food assistance, and he didn’t realise that’s where our food was going. It helps people every day,” says Porter.
“That made him really proud, and also made him much more aware of what he can be doing to make use of this food.”
Around New Zealand supermarkets are trying to make sure their surplus doesn’t become waste. Foodstuffs partners with rescue charities and social enterprises across the country and in the twelve months to September 2017 New World and Pak n Save supermarkets donated the equivalent of 3.2 million meals across New Zealand. Since 2006, across Progressive supermarkets, food rescue programmes, and the removal of non-recyclable materials from the supply chain, has reduced waste by 43%.
In 2016 France became the first country to force supermarkets to donate any surplus food to charities and food banks. Would compelling New Zealand supermarkets to do the same be an effective way to reduce waste? KiwiHarvest says it would do more harm than good.
“I don’t think we need to. They’re doing it already. Foodstuffs and Progressive want to work with us. They want to donate their food. It’s often the food rescue that don’t have capacity. Compelling would put all the pressure on food rescue to provide a service they’re already at capacity,” Manning says.
While food is easiest to rescue from retailers like the supermarket, studies show more than 50% of food waste is created by the consumer. The bananas we forget to eat before they go brown. The leftovers that don’t make it to work for lunch. The lettuce that turns soggy. The half bottle of milk that expires according to its “best before date” but didn’t actually smell bad at all.
It’s pretty hard not to be emotionally affected when you think about the amount of food waste, and the simultaneous food poverty. And you know you’re complicit. Our modern food system produces more waste, obesity and diet-related diseases related than ever before, but also more hunger. This has massive social and ecological consequences. Research points to convenience as one of the main causes of this dietary dichotomy and the way our relationship with food has been jeopardised.
“We can feed ourselves, there is no question about it. It’s a distribution problem, and it’s a problem in the luxury of our preferences. We are so used to having everything we want and that actually creates a lot of waste,” says Loosley.
“We’ve become so disconnected from food that we rely on some numbers on a piece of plastic that’s wrapped around our food instead of using our senses. And we are actually really gifted as humans with knowing what’s good to eat and what’s not.”
We need to start being smarter in the home. Working with Nick Loosley has taught me to trust my senses and ignore the numbers on the bottle, to freeze my bananas and grate my broccoli stems. It’s about reconnecting with our food, cooking more and gathering around meals. Still, last week I threw out two cups of rice I’d made for lunch but never ate, a bottle of milk, and half a litre of chicken soup I didn’t finish. (At least it makes me angry now.)
“That’s why so many people get behind this idea, because it is such a fundamental problem. We throw away a third of the food we produce for our species to eat, that’s just ridiculous when there’s one billion people in the world who are hungry,” says Loosley.
People have got behind the idea in a big way. Last weekend Everybody Eats hit its $120,000 crowdfunding target which will allow them to open a permanent site to service the significant need at both the waste end, and the hunger end, of the food system. There will be a head chef and a manager, and a new location, and a new community to serve.
“We want to give families the opportunity to sit down together to share a meal in a comfortable environment, and these families tend to be outside of the CBD. We are looking West or South of the city, somewhere 10-20 minutes drive. We have looked at locations so far in Avondale and Papatoetoe which both look to be suitable,” says Loosley.
Despite representing just a drop in the landfill, he believes Everybody Eats is making a real difference. A difference to people’s lives, changing the way we treat our food, and the way we think about other people.
“I think one of the failures of us collectively as humans is that we think we are not making a difference when we are. Because we think in such broad terms, and it’s not about small victories.”
He’s seen the places he volunteered at in the UK start to create massive awareness and momentum around the food system and how it’s been broken. They’re starting to get political, they’re starting to create understanding about the deeper rooted problems in the system, about food labelling, about whether we should sell ugly fruit, about ways to harvest produce that wouldn’t usually make it to market.
“What you find is purely through feeding people you start to solve the other problems. What I found through my research, places that are only trying to feed people food that was otherwise going to waste are doing all these other positive things.”
As I wiped down the tables at the end of a busy Monday at Everybody Eats. A rugged tall man with a dirty beard and alcohol on his breath was the last person to arrive. He sat down alone, sad and cold. But after his bowl of soup he moved tables to sit with the the other stragglers – a middle class father and his son. By the time the young boy and the man from the streets were eating their ice cream they were eye to eye laughing deeply like old friends.
Food did this. Food that was rescued from the landfill.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.