by Jake Brown7 minute read
We can all agree on one thing, that food waste is not good for the environment. But can it be ‘utilised’ to bring about social benefits to local communities?
I run a social enterprise trying to do just that. Utilise Loughborough is a social café that makes use of ‘waste’ food from the business world. We receive food donations from retailers, supermarkets and wholesalers. This food is perfectly edible, collected just hours after it was sat on shelves sold as ‘good to eat’. However, due to a focus on customer satisfaction, with surplus supply as a necessity for always meeting demand, it ends up being thrown away – or in this case, donated to us.
Our team of volunteers come together and cook each meal. They’re a diverse bunch, including members of local community groups, students from Loughborough University, individuals with a passion for green issues, youth offenders, ex-homeless gaining work experience and people who can only give their time as payment for their meal.
A tonne of good
The menu is offered on a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ basis. Each individual pays as much as they feel it is worth, or they can afford. They can even ‘pay forward’ for those who can’t afford it. This approach means we can welcome everyone, giving all those who need a hot meal access to one, whilst also generating enough revenue to be self-sustaining.
Our business model leads directly to food waste being diverted from the residual waste stream. In our first year of trading we intercepted just over 1,000kg of food and were on track to tackle twice as much this year.
Furthermore, at our cafes we try to educate our customers on the topic of food waste, and – through our partnership with Love Food Hate Waste – encourage them to prevent food waste at home. Less food going to waste means that all the energy and resources that goes into its production isn’t in vain. It doesn’t end up anaerobically decomposing landfill, creating harmful methane gas; nor does it end up as inefficient fuel for an incinerator. Instead, it ends up in the mouths of those who need it.
Changes to the welfare system, including reforms, payment delays and the increased of benefits sanctions, have contributed to the growing issue of food insecurity, and there is no sign of this changing. Homelessness has increased almost every year since 2009.
Studies show that homeless individuals eat fewer meals a day and have worse nutrition than the rest of the population. Furthermore, homeless shelters’ food provision often doesn’t offer a balanced diet.
The Utilise model directly helps tackle malnourishment amongst the homeless, but also helps homeless people gain work experience opportunities. We are now working alongside homelessness charities to give support people to get back into employment and break their cycle of homelessness.
The business model is sustainable, generating enough revenue to fund itself. This allows it to grow effectively and organically. Worldwide, the Real Junk Food Project oversees 40+ cafes (including Utilise). The management is not centralised: each café has its own place, people and processes. The only criteria are that at least 90% of the food used must be ‘waste’ and the business must operate on a pay as you feel basis. The flagship project is in Leeds, run by the founders themselves. Their café opens 7 days a week and they have recently opened a world-first supermarket-style ‘share house’.
However, scaling up these cafes is not plain sailing, especially in a small town like Loughborough. It took us a very long time to organise a sufficient and secure food supply. Often companies are wary about donating ‘waste’ food, due to fears about accountability and food hygiene. Even now it’s not perfect. Some weeks deliveries fall through, some weeks we only get bread and pastries. For greater variety and flexibility, we need to grow our food donor network.
We currently have just enough core volunteers for our weekly café, with a supplement to our numbers from one-off student volunteers from the university. Without them the café wouldn’t be where it is today. In order to grow, the team needs additional consistent core volunteers from the local community. Regular volunteers develop and add more to the business each week. They become deeply engaged, and this allows their own personalities to become part of the venture.
The largest barrier for our business is the pay factor. Luckily, as a student I can do this in my spare time between studying and socialising. It takes up many hours a week, but I can rely on other sources of finance to sustain myself. If this was my main source of income, I would be living at the absolute breadline and I doubt I would have been able to support myself in the early stages of the project.
There are a few policies that could support the birth and growth of redistribution projects all over the UK.
In France, it is now illegal for larger supermarkets to dispose of food. Any surplus must now go to charities or as animal feed. If similar policies were replicated in the UK it would make a wide range of food instantly available to scale-up existing cafes and make it much easier for new ones to come to market.
Whilst this could have the social and environmental benefits, one concern about redistribution approaches to food waste is that they mask the true nature of the underlying problem. Does donating to charities, nicely ‘tie in a bow’ the issue of waste food for the retailer? They save on expensive disposal fees whilst being able to boast about all the good they are doing for the community, but are left free to carry on wasting.
I propose that instead the UK should take steps to make businesses more accountable for the food waste they create. The key legislation already exists – the waste hierarchy requires every waste producer to “take all such measures available to it as are reasonable in the circumstances” to apply the familiar preference order: prevent, reuse, recycle, recover, dispose. However, no action has been taken to enforce it, and so the waste continues, from ‘ugly’ veg that can’t find a market to the countless loaves piling up in supermarket bins.
Cash without questions
At the same time, we should be looking to support volunteering and reduce the number of people reliant on redistributed food. One measure has the potential to do both. Finland has been in the news recently for piloting a basic income scheme to a sample of citizens, and many other countries are considering this approach. Basic income, a monthly sum paid to all citizens, regardless of means, shatters the idea that we must all work in order to live – a concept that we in any case have good reason to set aside. With their basic income requirements taken care of, people’s time and creativity are freed up, allowing them to take risks and pursue things not previously possible.
A policy like this in the UK could reduce poverty. At the same time, it would free up more people to give their time to projects like Utilise, or even take the risk and start their own schemes, whether tackling food waste or other social and environmental problems.
Much though I love working for Utilise, I always try to keep in mind what the Real Junk Food Project says: “We are the only business that wants to go out of business”. Whilst I want to see good come from utilising food waste, it’s making the best of a bad situation which shouldn’t be there in the first place.