Food waste has a huge negative impact on the environment. According to ‘Love Food Hate Waste’, about one third of all food produced worldwide gets wasted in the food production and consumption systems. Aside from the cost implications, all the land, water, fertilisers and labour needed to grow that food, is also wasted. This appears to be a symptom of a global culture that is still caught up in linear thinking, one that has not yet embraced the permaculture principle of ‘create no waste’ and is not yet managing to recycle its resources like a natural system does.
The good news is that people in the UK are leading the way in tackling their household food waste, cutting it by 21% over the past five years according to Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). This is a good start, but each household is still binning around £60 worth of food per month, so we clearly still have some way to go.
So what more can we do to reduce our own food waste? It was while I was pondering this question that I heard an intriguing story of how one woman was taking food waste reduction to a whole new level, not only in her own household but in her community too, and so I had to go and investigate.
The Food Waste Challenge
Mel Rees lives in Hove and is the director of The Green Centre in Brighton, a not-for-profit community interest company that educates people about environmental issues. She told me that she first had the idea for her own ‘food waste challenge’ a few years ago, but the catalyst that put her thoughts into action came through watching a film called ‘The Clean Bin Project’ when it was recently screened in Brighton.
"One Monday morning I woke up and decided that I would not buy any more food until I'd used up everything that was in my cupboards and the fridge. I then proceeded to look through the contents of the fridge with a feeling of trepidation as I remembered that I hadn't been shopping recently, and realised it wouldn't last very long!" She decided that she was up for the challenge and this kick-started her fascinating journey in the unknown.
Initially Mel decided on three basic rules in order to cut down on her own food waste:
To eat everything left in the kitchen without buying any food or drink to replace it
It's OK to eat out if meeting a friend for lunch or if invited to a friend's for dinner
Not allowed to ask anyone for any food
Later she added a fourth rule which was something she hadn't anticipated happening:
It's OK to accept other people's food waste.
Mel explained, "At first I was only aiming to use up all my own food, but within a few days my food waste challenge had come up in conversation with friends and neighbours, who then felt inspired to offer me their own food that had been sitting unused in the back of their cupboards and fridges. It was then that I realised that my project had grown beyond my original concept, into something that was spreading awareness in the community about food waste issues. Brilliant!"
"I'm now on day 71 of my experiment, and I still haven't had to buy any food! I'm now going for the target of 100 days!"
So has she had to compromise her nutritional intake in any way?
"No!" she said. "I've been given lots of fruit and veg, and good food just going out of date."
Admittedly she's had to be a rather creative cook, making up unusual recipes from the limited contents of her fridge, but has enjoyed the challenge so far. One day she was eating fried tofu for breakfast when she thought to herself, "I really miss eggs. Would the Universe send me some eggs please?" and (this really happened), that same morning she met a lady for the first time, who'd just started using The Green Centre to run a course, and low and behold she'd brought her a gift of half a dozen eggs from her own hens! What makes it rather incredible is that this lady had no idea that Mel was even doing a food waste challenge!
It seems to me that if you dare to take a leap of faith, a certain kind of magic can (and does) happen, as this story illustrates; and it’s just one of many. If you were to stop and chat with Mel, she’d tell you how the grocery store closed down next to The Green Centre and donated all its cans to their project which were shared out between members, how a friend who was moved by what she was doing gave her a free gift voucher for a local veg box, and how friends with allotments would give her their surplus veg, just when she was wondering what was going to be for dinner that night.
So how does Mel see herself proceeding after she’s reached day 100? “Well I’m going away for a month to stay with family,” she said, “and so when I return I shall start a new challenge; living on £1 a day (£7 per week) to spend on food shopping ... for everything.”
“How do you think it will go, living on £7 per week?” I asked her. “Compared to having no money to shop, having £7 per week is going to make me feel like a millionaire!” she said. “I’m still really surprised at how little food we really need. I’ve noticed that you can buy 2kg of red lentils for just £2. I’m not sure how much soup this will make but I wouldn’t mind betting it will be a lot!”
Mel is also preparing to grow some food in her back garden in order to supplement her diet with fresh greens, and has created some raised beds. “I plan to use the square-foot gardening approach,” she told me, “I’m no gardening expert and I find organising a schedule for the growing season rather overwhelming, so I’m hoping this approach will help me.”
I came away feeling inspired by Mel, and after attending a screening of ‘The Clean Bin Project’ myself (in my local community centre), I’ve signed up to my own waste challenge; seeing if I can go without buying any food in plastic packaging for a month.
I think Mel’s challenge shows that we can live on a lot less, but it helps if we’re creative and able cooks, we’re mindful about using every resource wisely, and we have a good network of friends to share resources with. Perhaps this is the model for a more balanced and mindful future?
Top Tips To Reduce Your Waste
Seven top tips for reducing food waste at home:
1. Write a list. Before shopping, menu plan your meals and check what’s already in your fridge and cupboards, and then just buy what’s on the list. Buy loose fruits and veg, and buy cheese from the deli so you can buy exactly what you need and nothing more.
2. Don’t shop when you are hungryThis might tempt you to buy more than you need and succumb to enticing offers.
3. Don’t throw fresh things awayFruit that’s going soft can be made into smoothies and fresh vegetables that are getting old can be made into soups.
4. Save leftovers. Leftover cooked veg can be used as a base for soups and stews, or to make bubble and squeak. Make sure you have plenty of containers with lids to store leftovers in.
5. Rotate. When you buy new food in, bring older items to the front and put new items to the back so that it’s easy to see when something is going off or out of date.
6. Use your freezer. If you only eat small amounts of bread, then freeze half the loaf and take slices out a few hours before you need them. Batch cook meals and freeze in handy portions so that you have ‘ready meals’ for times when you are too tired to cook.
7. Make compost. Some food waste is unavoidable, so turn it into a resource by making compost (in landfill it breaks down creating methane, a powerful greenhouse gas). All fruit and veg peelings can be composted, cooked food waste can go into a bokashi bin, a wormbin, hotbin or a digester.
Mel’s Free Stew’ Recipe
Mel was inspired by a volunteer at The Green Centre from Moscow, who told her about the Russian tradition of having a pot constantly stewing on the stove, which is added to each day with new ingredients as they become available.
Essential base ingredients: Cooking oil, onion, garlic, ginger, salt & pepper, stock
Fresh ingredients: Carrot, potato, parsnip, beetroot, leek, swede, celeriac, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, sweet potato
Store cupboard ingredients: Pearl barley, rice noodles, lentils
Start off with the ‘essential base ingredients’, frying the onion, garlic and ginger gently before adding in the stock and seasonings.
Turn up the heat and add in any other ingredients from the above lists (just one or two is enough), and simmer until soft.
Each day add in one or two new ingredients along with more stock and seasonings. If it starts to taste rather ‘unusual’, blend it to create a soup and serve with bread. Any leftover soup can be used as a stock to help start the next day’s stew.
One combination that worked well was heating up yesterday’s vegetable stew, and then adding in rice noodles and simmering until cooked.
For more information on The Green Centre in Brighton visit www.thegreencentre.co.uk
Flo Scott lives in Brighton in a housing co-op with her husband and teenage boys. She is an artist, writer and permaculture designer, specialising in improving health and wellbeing through mindful living and developing a deeper connection to nature. For more visit www.permaculturedesigner.co.uk
Cook easy and delicious meals from home-grown, foraged and veg box ingredients and leftovers with The Permaculture Kitchen by Carl Legge, for just £11.20 from our Green Shopping site (also available as a pdf)