Do you remember when we found out that the prime minister, after one of the less damaging leaks from her administration, told her cabinet meeting that she scrapes the mould off jam rather than throw it away. She told colleagues that she scrapes the mould off and the rest is “perfectly edible”. She added that people should use “common sense” to work out if the whole jar should be thrown out. Giggles all round.
Like Norma Major’s advice to freeze left-over cheese, and Margaret Thatcher’s habit of stockpiling tinned food to beat inflation, it was taken to be symbolic of a certain penny-pinching meanness, the ethos of a WI branch gone mad, apparently bizarre in people who are pretty wealthy by any standard.
Wrong though. The statistics on food waste – which is to say perfectly edible, good food, simply dumped – are depressing. We do not, as a society, value food, even when there are about two million people in the UK living in food poverty, many thousands of children turn up at school without a breakfast inside them, and many, many people of all ages have poor diets rich only in fat, salt and sugar – hence the obesity epidemic and all the health complications that accompany it.
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There is, then, an ironic double whammy: we lack nutrition, but we waste vast amounts of it too. At the Step Up To The Plate symposium organised by government, industry and charities, we learned that Britain throws away 10 million tons of good food and drink away every year. Households account for about 7 million tons of that – some £15bn worth.
On average, we throw away one third – one third! – of the food we buy. Think of that.
If we followed the official advice to buy what we eat and eat what we buy, each household with children would save about £800 a year.
We would also succeed in reducing CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions. Think about it: the diesel, aviation fuel or petrol to take food from farm or factory to shop, warehouse and home; the plastics, glass and metals used in packaging it; the energy used in manufacturing it; the fertilisers used in growing it; pesticides and herbicides; the methane released when it winds up in landfill. If we managed to eliminate food waste, we would reduce annual national CO2 emissions by the equivalent amount of taking every HGV lorry off the road.
One man around the cabinet table listening to Ms May’s household tips, maybe, took the homely advice to heart. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food (stress on that bit) and Rural Affairs, and a speaker at the symposium, displayed a degree of passion about the profligate way we produce, store, transport, and consumer and, above all, chuck away perfectly good food.
He is doing something – albeit modest – about it. There’s a government grant of about £15million for recycling schemes that will take the produce not used or sold by supermarkets, other retailers, wholesalers, restaurants and the hospitality trade, and turn it into nutritious, fresh meals that can feed to those in need.
Charities such as the Felix Project (supported by TheIndependent‘s Christmas campaign in 2017), FareShare and City Harvest have been in the vanguard of the movement to reduce waste and improve nutrition. They can offer disadvantaged families food parcels of fresh fruit and veg, meat, cheese, fish, bread, sandwiches and other perishables, in contrast to the tinned and dried foodstuffs in the food banks. They can also use raw ingredients to make wholesome meals for the homeless, for example.
Relatively small sums of public money have thus been able to leverage much greater effort from the private and voluntary sectors – and they are indeed paltry when compared to the challenge of reducing those billions of pounds worth of waste, not to mention relieving the human misery of people in this land of food surplus forced to go hungry.
Mr Gove has also appointed a “food tsar”, or Food Surplus and Waste Champion, Ben Elliot, to try and persuade businesses to throw less food away, to put the food they do have to throw away to better use, and to try to convince them to change policies and practices that tend to lead to consumers buying too much in the first place.
Mr Elliot has been attacked for being the boss of a company, Quintessentially, that is a concierge service operating in the luxury sector to people so wealthy they never have to consider the cost of anything, let alone the weekly shop. He also has the original sin of an Eton education.
Yet why hold his vast wealth and privilege against him if she uses his contacts, managerial skills and gifts of persuasion and organisation to get effective food waste projects underway. In post only since January, so far he has helped achieve a near doubling of unused food redistribution. He has also announced increased funding for food waste initiatives; set ambitious targets for retailers in time for November, when a corporate league table of food waste reduction will be published; and stepped up his dialogue with the companies. His company also has its own charity arm, the Quintessentially Foundation.
Philanthropy can never usurp the proper role of the state in providing social security, because it has not the means to do so; but where the state and business have left gaps, then the voluntary sector has to try and fill them.
Now Mr Eliot is asking – insisting – that everyone sign up to the “Step Up to the Plate” pledge, to be a “food value champion at work and at home, buying only what I need and eating what I buy, wherever I am”. As an unpaid and hard-working actor in this sphere Mr Elliot is demonstrably sincere in what he wants to do, which is to end the “environmental, moral and financial scandal” of wasting food.
Mr Gove has been among the first to sign up to the pledge – which includes a goal to halve food waste by 2030 – and is joined by corporate players in the world of food including Nestlé, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose. Others supporting the initiatives include the East End food company, KFC as well as the Wrap charity and Guardians of Grub, a group who want to reduce waste in the catering trade. The Victoria and Albert Museum is to host a “Bigger Than the Plate” exhibition from Saturday. It is, with luck, the beginning of a cultural shift in attitudes.
There is still much more to do though, and in November’s “Food Conversation Week” the nation (if it can spare a few moments from Brexit) will be asked some difficult questions.
Some appear intractable. At a time when, for the prosperous classes in the UK, food, either consumed at home or eaten out, has never been cheaper – where is the incentive to buy wisely and reduce waste?
Culinary innovations such as bubble and squeak, fish and chips or oxtail soup date back to times of acute shortage or war-time rationing, economic recession and depression, when households could only afford the basics and budgets were strained.
Today, food is a relatively small part of most household spending, a point made forcibly by Henry Dimbleby, boss of the successful Leon chain and another government adviser, during the discussions at today’s food waste symposium.
And whereas chefs, food manufacturers and farmers all have a financial incentive to reduce waste – because it hits their profits – the supermarkets have an in-built incentive to want to sell us more and more food we might not eat. This results in overly cautious “use by” dates to ubiquitous “buy one get one free” offers. For those of us who recall a time when our nose and eyes could determine whether food is edible, “use by” and “sell by” dates seem entirely superfluous, while “BOGOF” offers are a crude but effective marketing ploy that we might be better off (and perhaps slimmer) without. “Buy one, garbage one free” might be a better translation of the acronym.
One last point. In France the levels of food waste are far lower than in Britain. Partly this may be down to France’s traditionally respectful, if not reverential, attitude towards food.
Partly, too, it is down to a battery of taxes and penalties levied on supermarkets, in particular, that fail to make sure their surplus food goes to those in greatest need.
It is a statist option that a Conservative government is reluctant to take, but if Mr Gove and Mr Elliot are serious about their project, and if voluntarism doesn’t deliver, they may yet be forced to take more draconian steps, to end what they recognise is an “environmental, moral and financial scandal” .