Reducing Food Waste - Sharing experiences across the Pennines.

A guest post by Rene Meijer, CEO of FoodWorks and SAFE Sheffield Action Research Team member, reporting part of a series of visits to exchange knowledge on forms and impacts of surplus food redistribution

Last Tuesday I visited The Bread and Butter Thing (TBBT). It aims to make life more affordable by distributing surplus food to communities in Greater Manchester. The model for TBBT is based redistribution of around 12T of surplus food a week to people in Greater Manchester via a subscription. It’s like a veg box for surplus food, not unlike the Green Boxes we run at Food Works in Sheffield There are interesting parallels in our approach, but also some differences to consider.

Mark Game set up TBBT in 2015 after almost a decade running The Company Shop. TBBT Have a small warehouse unit and 4 refrigerated vans that are used to pick up surplus from food businesses, repackage them into bags of shopping and redistribute those via community hubs in Greater Manchester. He explains that members of TBBT are paying customers, not charity clients. I think it’s a very important distinction. There is no selection based on imperfect and stigmatising criteria of poverty. People choose to become a paying member because they feel it is a valuable service to them. Another benefit of this model is that it allows TBBT to be self funding, at least in terms of its operational costs. It means continuing the services is not dependent on external funders, and TBBT can set its own priorities focussing on what members need and want. Similar principles underpin a lot of what we do in Food Works.

Unlike our Green boxes, which are only available to collect collect from our Sharehouse, TBBT members can collect a weekly selection of surplus food from one of 17 local community hubs. In the selection of the community hubs, TBBT has a way to target their food into communities who they think would benefit greatly. For Mark it is equally important that the hub model also helps community centres by making them a service point that will attract more local people to engage. It’s not a dissimilar model to how our cafes work, and I wonder if it would translate. Some of the hubs in Manchester are schools, and potentially this might offer a different way for us to deliver our schools program in a way that doesn’t impact on the limited school budget.

There was also time to discuss some structural challenges. We’re all proud of the difference we make in our communities, but many of us will also readily admit that is is hard to address systemic issues around food waste. Many organisations, perhaps a bit further removed from public scrutiny, still waste vast amounts of food unchallenged. Mark has wondered if something like a whistle-blower phone number might help with this. It’s an interesting idea. But there are also challenges in organisations that do engage with this debate. Most large retailers, for instance, have now signed up to charitable redistribution schemes. But there are questions about the fairness and effectiveness of these models. Are retailers supporting local charities by providing them with access to food, or are charities just supporting the retailers by providing a free waste collection and distribution service? Perhaps it is time to have a mature discussion about how we pay for redistribution?

The charitable sector also has it’s challenges. Most charities that collect food do not report on their wastage. Surplus collections can be infrequent and partial, and we know anecdotally that not all charities manage to find a good use for all the food they work with. Sometimes this means we’re just moving food surpluses around, which actually contributes to the problem. Being charitable doesn’t absolve us from our own responsibilities in this area, and if we want to challenge commercial businesses to be more responsible with what they waste, we should hold ourselves to the same standards.

Solving this is going to require collaboration. In part because we will need a collective voice to make and impact on the larger organisations and influence change. But we also need to make sure we challenge and support each other for further change. Because all the good we try to do aside, all our solutions are inevitably imperfect. And if we’re truly here to make the biggest difference, we should be open to address our own imperfections. Some of that, such as shared infrastructure and physical collaborations, are probably regional. But other topics, such as a collective voice for change, probably benefit from broader partnerships as the organisations we need to influence work nationally and internationally. My visit to TBBT has been a great start for us, and I’m really pleased that Mark is also looking to build more collaborations within the sector. Watch this space...