Outside a small, white-washed room tucked in the back of St John’s Church in Peckham, south east London, people are patiently waiting for their turn to collect their weekly food shop before Christmas. Inside this room is The Pantry,a tiny supermarket run entirely by volunteers, which distributes food to people who are struggling to make ends meet.
Shelves that at the start of the day were crammed with products such as chorizo, celeriac, apples and Innocent Smoothies are already almost empty – the limited food is in such high demand that people have to be turned away, the charity organisers explain.
In exchange for £4.50, people in financial difficulties can fill a bag with ten perfectly good items of food that would have otherwise ended up in the bin.
They are some of the 1.4 million Brits fed every year through FareShare, a charity that collects surplus food that supermarkets and food suppliers don’t want and sends it to schools, food banks and community supermarkets like this one. Despite their best efforts, the UK government says 10 million tonnes of food and drink are wasted every year in the UK – and 8.4m people, equivalent to the entire population of London – go hungry every day.
“Speaking practically, around 70 per cent of food wasted in the UK is at home,” says Helen White, special advisor at campaign group Love Food Hate Waste. Serving portions that are too large and the lack of time to cook are the main reasons why food goes to waste. And this gets worse during Christmas, when people feel like they must provide more food than necessary for family occasions.
But the food waste problem doesn’t stop there. What people often don’t know is that a sizeable portion of the food produced for supermarkets doesn’t ever reach the shelves, let alone our bins at home. Charities that serve local food banks and community projects across the country have become the refuge of overly large cauliflower, an overabundance of apples and butternut squash, and serious marketing mistakes.
This is purely because supermarkets are aware of our fickle shopping habits: thousands of fizzy drink bottles (that were the wrong shade of grey), ketchup bottles with the label on upside down, and swathes of chicken “noddle” soup were rerouted on their way to the shelves in anticipation of no one wanting to buy them despite being perfectly fine.
At Christmas, the food FareShare receives becomes even more random: advent calendars in January, pheasant and hunks of steak that supermarkets decided not to order, and a tsunami of mince pies. “There will be snowflakes and snowman and Father Christmas on all products. No one wants to buy those in January. But if those products haven’t been sold, it doesn’t matter that they have six months date life on them,” explains Rachel Ledwith of FareShare at the charity’s Deptford warehouse.
She proudly shows a cornucopia of Christmas branded products that had been sent to the warehouse early this year: cakes and biscuits, lamb shoulders, whole chickens, cuts of pork, charcuterie platters, and beef steaks are carefully stored in an immense warehouse to be shipped out to people in need.
“This year we are quite excited, we’re expecting a delivery of frozen turkeys, around 10,000,” she says. But this is an anomaly. Too often the charity has to be far more creative than it should because it can’t offer people food that they wish they could have for Christmas. “It’s very unusual for us to get turkeys before Christmas, or mince pies before Christmas. So we try to sell Christmas cake as Easter cake or seasonal cake.”
In 2019 carrots the length of a small dog were re-routed to FareShare, followed by cherry tomatoes that ripened too soon, and then by perfectly-shaped onions that were considered too small to appeal to UK shoppers.
This is all despite the fact that ethical shopping is one of the fastest growing sectors in retail today. Spending on sustainable food and drink grew 9.7 per cent in 2018, and the market is now worth £81.3 billion in the UK, according to a report by targeting company Criteo.
FareShare volunteers wrangle with supermarkets and suppliers (including the Co-operative and Tesco in London) to get around 20,000 tonnes of food delivered to charities across the country every year. “Some suppliers say ‘we’ve got no food waste’, because for them 0.1 per cent is tiny. But for us, that’s 1,000 tonnes of food,” Ledwith explains.
By making use of the food, charities are able to make savings of just under £34 million a year, she claims. “This means that they can open another day of the week, they could take in another 20 children in their breakfast club. They can operate activities, they can do so much more with that money because they’re not spending it on food.
“We are about squeezing as much social impact out of every kilo of food that leaves this building as possible.”
The project exposes just how broken the UK’s food system really is. Tonnes of food being wasted because no one wants to eat it, while millions of people go hungry. Nothing can be fixed if supermarkets, food suppliers and manufacturers don’t start sharing information about where the system is failing, says Steve Brewer of Lincoln University and Andrew McMillan of law firm Pinsent Masons.
They believe that data could be the answer to the food crisis, and are set to launch a new project next year (called Internet of Food Things) to campaign for major companies to share data with each other, map out the demand for products and solve the food distribution crisis. “So much more could be achieved in terms of redistribution of waste,” Brewer explains. “By analysing the supply chain and seeing what data currently flows, we can look at what the opportunities and the barriers are.”
With funding from the Food Standards Agency in England, they will set up a data trust project that can also improve food safety and security. They face an uphill struggle. Until now, no companies want to share information about what they need or when they need it with each other because they believe it is commercially sensitive information. Brewer believes an independent trust can strong-arm companies into changing their minds.
Even if it works, until everyone who handles food from the farm to the table decides to change their attitude towards food, there is very little that can be done about food waste. Except to change our own minds. “People try and think more about where their food comes from, what they’re doing, how they shop, how they buy,” says Ledwith.
If you’re in the habit of rummaging around a supermarket shelf for a milk bottle that expires three days later than the rest for no reason – you’re contributing to the problem, she says.
“What you’re doing is you’re conveying to the supermarket that you want long life on your product. And so they will not sell short life products,” Ledwith adds. “We can’t solve this alone, but we are a cog in the system, we are part of the supply chain.”
As an older woman fills her bag at The Pantry with the help of a volunteer, it’s hard not to feel a small spark of hope. There will always be surplus food, and whether it’s short or long term, there will always be people in need. But this year, charities have defied the odds and helped to make Christmas happen for thousands.
More great stories from WIRED
🚙 SUVs are worse for the planet than anyone realised
⏲️ Science says we should work shorter hours in winter
🐘 The illegal trade of Siberian mammoth tusks revealed
🙈 I ditched Google for DuckDuckGo. Here’s why you should too
📧 How to use psychology to get people to answer your emails