Food waste heroes: Food Is...documents those who pass on the produce
Love food? Hate waste? So does Chris King, a photographer who’s set up Food Is, a website that gathers together positive stories from people working to pick, pack, cook or deliver food deemed to be no good. He talks to us about the issue of food waste and what needs to be done to drag the food industry out of the landfill and into the larder.
Fri 16 Dec 2016
Let’s look at the stats quickly. 18 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK each year - this is roughly split equally between waste at farm level, at supermarket or shop level and in the home. 20-40% of food is rejected on cosmetic grounds before it even reaches the shelves. In the UK 5.8 people live below the poverty line, with food banks recording a 66% increase in people who need their help since 2013. Aside from the human cost of an unfair food system, every tonne of food waste is responsible for 4.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
So, that’s where we are, like a leaky boat forever at sea, we need to find a way to mend the raft or we’ll all be sunk.
Image Photographer Chris King has been documenting the people working to redistribute food waste for the last three years
Having spent the last three years documenting food waste heroes who are on the front line of an unfair system, King’s project has evolved into a portal where he shares positive stories of the people who are making something out of nothing.
“My desire to explore the subject photographically is not just because it’s under reported,” King explains, “but because it impacts on all the issues of all our time – climate change, water security, the power of the bio-techs and the narrative there’s not enough food when there is...food waste connects to all these things.”
He’s spent time with a network of volunteer organisations across Europe to meet the people such as those who redistribute wasted food and glean fruit and vegetables from farms that have been rejected by supermarkets and who keep the food banks going.
“In Northern Ireland there’s an organisation I connected with called SOS NI, they gather food that would go to waste from supermarkets but it’s fresh produce like bread and veg and distribute it the next day,” says King. ”They provide food to organisations helping asylum seekers, refugees, domestic violence and human trafficking victims and they’re doing it with one van. All these organisations are praising them and the people that they support feel blessed to have access to have this food – they feel it’s like Christmas time every time the van appears and opens its doors – the guys are funding this themselves through their own charitable events, they’re not getting any financial support yet they have this vital role."
Having set up the photo project, King plans to keep covering the people who also make an individual difference. There are far more of them than people realise and each project needs support.
“There’s so much noise and so much high level stuff going on in the world, it’s hard for these smaller organisations to get attention when people’s focus is on global events,” explains King. “So it’s important to try and balance that out and see they do connect with as many people as possible.”
A Gleaning Network UK volunteer holds a cauliflower she has just gleaned in a field in Kent. These cauliflowers were rejected by the supermarket for being too big.
Miguel, an employee of Fruta Feia, fills a van with potatoes from one of their suppliers – assisted by the farmers' mother-in-law.
Approximately two tonnes of parsnips, part of a 25-tonne harvest, are saved from being wasted on a farm in Norfolk. The farmer (who featured on 'Hugh’s War on Waste') has stopped producing parsnips as it is no longer sustainable, due to the amount being rejected by exacting cosmetic standards.
These cabbages have been saved from going to waste at a farm in Kent by Gleaning Network volunteers. They would otherwise have been left to rot back into the ground, due to the cosmetic standards imposed on the farmer by the supermarket.
Joana Batista is an employee of Fruta Feia, a Lisbon-based organisation that buys seasonal fruit and veg that was rejected by the supermarkets. It pays local farmers a fair price then they put together boxes to sell to their members for a low cost.
Hunter Hadler, the founder of ReFood in Portugal is photographed in one the hubs where food is brought that would have gone to waste by retailers. It's then redistributed to people suffering from food poverty in the same borough.
Crates of pears from a farm in Kent are saved from going to waste by volunteers from the Gleaning Network. They were rejected by the supermarket the farmer supplies due to their size and shape.
A FareShare volunteer, who is also an asylum-seeker, loads the van with food to deliver to a local charity.
Fighting food waste
“There needs to be a reduction in food waste at every level, households, retailers and farms and they need to change quickly as we are at a tipping point. If effective positive change doesn’t occur soon then the consequences are going to be hugely challenging and costly,” explains King. “We have 60 years of topsoil left at current rates of degradation and yet we’re wasting a third of everything we produce. We need to look at how to produce everything more efficiently at every stage.”
While supermarkets in France and Italy are now legally required to donate all unsold food to charities, nothing like that exists in the UK. However Tesco is in the middle of rolling out a nationwide plan to donate the edible portion of the 55,400 tonnes of unsold food it has every year. Various campaigns for supermarkets to sell wonky fruit and veg have helped raise awareness of the wasteful cosmetic standards that farmers have to adhere to, Jamie Oliver threw his weight behind it last year and Waitrose debuted their Little Less Than Perfect range this year. On the continent an Intermarché campaign celebrating ugly fruit and vegetables went viral and Denmark has opened a series of waste food only supermarkets with much lower prices. London will see its first zero waste food hall open in the autumn.
But is it enough? Not really.
“The government needs to create an infrastructure where positive change can happen throughout the industry and we can redistribute food more easily, they need to confront the supermarkets over their buying practices and address the waste that is happening at production level” says King.
“Where do you begin and start that change? It comes down to the government to force change. Relying on people to do it all voluntarily isn’t going to create an immediate change – consumer patterns and opinion needs to shift and that takes a while – the government can cut through and make swift policy-level action.”
Want to make some changes at home? Read our easy tips on reducing food waste to get started.