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From pub to food rescue hub: The Brits handing out food waste

Original team of volunteers at Food Rescue Hub, UK
Original team of volunteers at Food Rescue Hub, UK   -   Copyright  Food Rescue Hub
By Catherine Lofthouse

If you saw boxes of mouth-watering fresh produce displayed on rustic benches at a local British shop, you would never guess that the fruit, veg and baked goods were actually saved from the bin.

Yet that's exactly where those crates of food would have ended up, if it weren't for a determined group of volunteers on a mission to feed people, not landfill.

Swapping pints for punnets has pulled in the punters at three locked-down pubs hosting weekly Food Rescue Hub sessions. And empty beer gardens are proving to be perfect COVID-safe spots to distribute supermarket surplus to anyone who wants to stock their cupboards.

This week (1-7th March) is the first ever Food Waste Action Week in the UK, organised by WRAP charity. It brings together everyone in the food supply chain to tackle a growing problem caused by consumer-led lifestyles.

Food waste is everyone's problem

An EU report in 2019 suggested that only redistributing unsold produce to those in food poverty is not enough anymore. More wasted food needs to be handed out to slash the 88 million tonnes generated annually across the EU and to meet the United Nations target of halving food waste by 2030.

Food Rescue Hub founder Emma Goulding agrees, passionate about helping both people and the planet.

“We value the food and give it respect. It’s grown by the farmer and made possible by the Earth,” she says.

The ethos of the food rescue is that anyone who wants to save food from landfill, regardless of their economic status, is given a warm welcome.

Food Rescue Hub
All the items being handed out at Food Rescue Hub, UKFood Rescue Hub

“In the queue, people get to know each other. The millionaire and the pauper could be standing next to each other, but they don't realise as it doesn't matter. It’s proper diversity as we are all there for a common goal.”

Surplus stock that would have been binned by supermarkets and suppliers is given out to ‘shoppers’ who attend the weekly sessions, which have the feel of a farmers’ market.

“Food is a vehicle to start talking about living a life, as a consumer, of wholesomeness and simplicity, which is missing in people’s decision-making,” she says.

Every town should do its bit

Emma feels strongly that food waste should be a devolved issue, “every town should look after its own waste,” she adds.

This belief came about when Emma, a cookery teacher, went to Ghana to help paint a school and start a library there with charity Humanitas in 2018. Little did she know - she would be the one who received an education.

Horrified at finding plastic food wrappers from the UK dumped thousands of miles from home, she discovered that some UK councils had contracts to send rubbish to countries in West and North Africa.

She discovered that some UK councils had contracts to send rubbish to countries in West and North Africa.

So when Emma learnt that even more waste was occurring at the back of her own local supermarkets in the UK, with still edible stock simply thrown in the bin, she knew she had to act.

Making contact with the Best Before cafe in Letchworth Garden City, she used what she learnt there to start her own hub in the town of Hitchin, before setting up a second session in nearby Stevenage.

The food rescue has recently opened a third hub in Welwyn Garden City, just in time for Food Waste Action Week.

Originally Canadian, Emma grew up in Barbados and points out that people there have a very different attitude towards food. “In Barbados, most food is imported and it’s very precious. Every bit of food is considered,” she says.

Food Rescue Hub
Two huge crates of food that would have been binned if Food Rescue Hub hadn't saved themFood Rescue Hub

Food rescue in lockdown

The problem of discarded food has only exacerbated over the past year, as scenes of panic-buying saw shelves being stripped in British supermarkets.

The Food Rescue Hub had closed to keep its volunteers safe. But it was soon receiving desperate calls to help deal with overstock chaos caused by the effect over-buying was having on a centralised ordering system.

In response, it set up three small recovery teams operating from a storage space as a depot, taking more than 600 crates a month and distributing them to charities and community causes that needed the food.

People were losing jobs and having to use food banks when they wouldn’t normally,
Emma Goulding

"A lot of people’s situations were changing dramatically. People were losing jobs and having to use food banks when they wouldn’t normally," Emma explains.

When the first lockdown lifted and the Food Rescue Hub was able to reopen to the public in the summer, changes had to be made to keep volunteers and customers safe.

"We wanted to reopen safely but keep the essence and magic we are known for. We could never change the way we care for people. Now we wear masks, we have to smile with our eyes instead of with our mouths. Everyone has a sense of belonging.”

Alexa Lot
Handing out surplus food to those who need itAlexa Lot

Crucially, adds Emma, “we remind our visitors that they are the food rescue heroes every time they come in."

Visitors are asked to only take what they need or could share with neighbours, filling two bags for a suggested donation of £5 (€5.80) or whatever they can afford.

It’s part of the pay-as-you-feel model that ensures the project's sustainability.

What else is being done to tackle food waste?

Other European countries have come up with their own ways of tackling the mountain of food waste that occurs each year.

France even went so far as to ban supermarkets from throwing away unsold food rather than donating it to good causes in 2016, while the popular Too Good to Go app, which matches up end-of-day cafe and shop produce with customers, started in Denmark in 2015 and now operates across 15 countries.

The founders of the Oddbox fruit and veg box, which delivers fresh but wonky produce, were inspired by a trip to a Portuguese market, where goods came in all shapes and sizes but tasted delicious.

And brand new box scheme Earth & Wheat, aimed at cutting the 24m pieces of bread wasted in the UK every day, is about to launch on 12th March, sending out fresh bread that would otherwise be binned thanks to its appearance.

With the fight against food waste not going stale, there's no shelf life for the mission to feed people, not landfill.

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