How supermarket ‘waste’ is helping solve food insecurity

How supermarket 'waste' is helping solve food insecurity - Candid Orange

By Millie Radiguet

In the UK’s food retail sector, roughly 300,000 tonnes of edible food is set to be thrown away each year. Fareshare tells us that 8.4 million people in the UK are struggling to eat. As 2021 hits and COVID-19 persists, it’s more important than ever to address the national hunger crisis and food shortage. 

Supermarket “waste”: Is it really as bad as we think?

Most people conceive supermarket waste to be a bad thing. However, according to figures published by WRAP as part of their report ‘Quantification of food surplus, waste and related materials in the grocery supply chain’, out of the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food products labelled as wastage from supermarkets each year, over 26,000 tonnes of this is re-distributed as surplus food by charities on a variety of scales. 

It could be argued that these alternative food systems are the supermarkets’ way of contributing to the national food crisis by donating to charities who endeavour to create equal access to food within their local communities. 

An example of this would be The Gaskell Garden Project in Manchester. With less than 10 volunteers, small grassroots organisations such as themselves can, directly and indirectly, feed over 1,800 people in just 1 week by re-distributing supermarket surplus. Food provision in this social manner does not take place everywhere. But if it did, could we re-gain food sovereignty? Any step toward this approach is a step closer to a more equal and just food system. 

This image shows a day’s worth of perfectly good, edible surplus food from 1 store collected by The Gaskell Garden Project.

Aldi’s response to food inequality

As a reaction to the recent outrage addressing the lack of quality and quantity in the free school meals given out to kids across the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic, Aldi has teamed up with Marcus Rashford, an English footballer and child food poverty campaigner, to create a new campaign to fight against hunger. 

Amidst the campaign, Aldi has shone a light on the work they do with Neighbourly. Neighbourly is a fantastic platform which acts as a middleman connecting large businesses with charities. It facilitates the collection of surplus food from supermarkets which is later re-distributed by these charities in the form of food hampers or hot meals. These efforts made by the supermarket have been widely praised across today’s media.

Aldi has also reported a new way of tackling food insecurity by introducing the “red sticker discount”. The supermarket plans to reduce food prices by up to 75 percent on their final day of shelf life. This new incentive to tackle food waste is great news for Aldi, who is now making a 25 percent profit on items they would otherwise be giving away. However, reducing food prices, although ultimately beneficial in the fight against poverty, doesn’t quite equalise food provision, as money is not something everybody has access to. If we can agree that food is a fundamental human right, then do we really want to decrease the amount available to feed hungry people? 

It’s not just the supermarkets producing mass amounts of food waste

We live in a capitalist society where money trumps human needs. As a result of Coronavirus, UK airlines’ flight frequency fell by 90.7 percent in the spring of 2020. You’d think that this drastic drop would cause a significant reduction in the number of in-flight meals being produced, right? Wrong. In fact, it actually would cost the airlines more money to change their contracts with the catering companies than it would to just keep the meals rolling in. This means millions of tonnes of plastic-packaged meals are being made and imported just to be dumped straight into landfill. The absurdity of this mirrors society’s addiction to profit.

After learning this, The Old Abbey Taphouse, a community hub pub in Hulme, Manchester, has set up a hot meal distribution service using pre-packaged meals from airline catering companies combined with surplus food from supermarkets. The meals get sent out to the homes of participants on a free pay-as-you-feel basis. This is another great example of a community project working toward equalising food provision.

Revolutionising the food system

Even with all this appreciable work being done, it’s still not enough. Foodhall in Sheffield reports that the amount of surplus they receive isn’t enough to feed everyone who reaches out to them. They often run out of food before the day has ended. 

In contrast to this, one of The Gaskell Garden Project’s volunteers tells us: “Sometimes we have to leave perfectly good food for the supermarkets to dispose of as we don’t have enough space to load or store it, or it’s not wanted by our drop points. For example, in a week we can get up to 40 crates of bread. As a small organisation, we drop to about 6 donation points per week and when we asked the receiving organisations directly, most told us that they won’t get through more than 2 crates of bread per week. This leaves us with a surplus of surplus.” 

This imbalance exists due to underfunding and too much strain on charities. If organisations worked together and formed a unity of food, issues like these could be eradicated. This is where the National Food Service comes in. 

“A well-funded food service where nutritious, culturally appropriate and affordable food is delivered by unionised workers earning a living wage in dedicated community buildings in every neighbourhood across the country.” The National Food Service (NFS) campaign started in Sheffield in 2018 in the Foodhall Project and aims to create equal access to food using socialist politics. They work nationwide, from Glasgow to Bristol, running on surplus food and small pots of funding to distribute hot meals and food boxes. Despite the exigency for this operation, the NFS is still small scale with currently under 300 volunteers spread across the UK. 

If collected and distributed properly, one store donating 40 crates of surplus a week could directly feed up to 1,000 people. If we keep our focus on Aldi, statistically speaking, with almost 1000 UK stores, they could be supplying meals for almost 100,000 people every week providing there were an efficient surplus collection and distribution regime. And that’s just one supermarket. If the expansion of surplus distribution projects reached a national scale, were efficient enough and got the funding they deserve, we could use so-called “waste” to eliminate food insecurity within the UK. 

Image courtesy of Katherine Marriott.