Friday, 7 May 2010

Food Waste

We're regularly advised by adverts, pressure groups and the government of how to reduce our carbon footprint but one issue seems to attract less attention. Vast amounts of energy are not only used in the production of food, but also its transport to your table. Or at least two thirds of it. It's estimated that roughly a third of all food in the UK is wasted. This waste then mostly goes into landfill and produces another greenhouse gas – methane. All in all, it’s estimated that our food cycle is responsible for around 20% of the UK's carbon footprint.

Help is at hand, however, from a number of groups and movements in Manchester finding more sustainable and localised ways to source food. The Lost Plot in Chorlton, a recent beneficiary of the Council's Carbon Innovation Fund, is one of them. An allotment cared for by a group of volunteers and self professed 'allotmentalists', it reaches out to the local community and shows that it's easy to grow your own veg when everyone comes together. They meet on their plot every sunday to tend to the plants and soil and everyone takes something home for their kitchen table or to grow at home.

Another is the Abundance Project, dedicated to harvesting the urban environment's surprisingly rich harvest by picking unwanted fruit from people's gardens. They shin up trees to make the most of the unwanted windfall and give the tree owners the first share before distributing the rest to people who need it, such as destitute asylum seekers, on a fleet of bicycle trailers. Although it's mostly an autumnal activity they also have their own allotment for the spring in a car park in West Didsbury, and organise a number of community events and growing workshops. Operating in south central Manchester, Debbie Clarke, who helps organise the project, says the fruit they pick is “really only the tip of the iceberg” and they always have plenty of trees to get round in picking season - to the point where groups have had to ask them to stop sending apples - and are keen to see other groups doing the same around Manchester.

All this is well and good, you may say, if all you want to eat is runner beans and apples but, well, where's the beef? And what about all that waste? Of course, as any good environmentalist will tell you, eating meat is much worse for the planet than being a vegetarian, but there is a way to be a sustainable carnivore... if you don't mind getting your hands dirty.

Before you fetch the kitchen knife and go for the cat the next door, I'm talking about skipping. A good proportion of food wasted is in retail, and much of this food is caught in a curious legal trap. The companies producing it must put the use-by date as the earliest possible date it could go off, and the shops selling it have to throw it out on that date (they can't even give it away for fear of being sued). This means that in reality, the majority of food that ends up in supermarket skips is perfectly edible and packaged away in nicely sealed bags, and that’s on top of all the stuff they throw out because the packaging's damaged or it looks a bit wrinkly. I've been filling my fridge with such stuff for a few months now and found everything from coffee beans and steaks to ready to bake pastries and pineapples, even the odd can of beer. Most of my diet consists of food I got out of a bin that would have otherwise ended up as landfill and, most of the time, I eat like a king. It gives you a huge variety of diet, for free and with zero impact on the environment and, in many cases, is simply a case of nipping round the back of the shop after it’s closed.

Food Not Bombs are a group who have taken this on as a wider project and have made arrangements with a number of local grocers to pick up food on its sell-by date and cook it up for events and free street stalls around Manchester to demonstrate just how much food we waste. Supermarkets, however, haven't been as receptive to the idea, but says one activist, “we usually just go through their bins anyway”.

Food sourcing and waste is a society-wide problem that needs national action, but in the meantime, thanks to groups like Abundance, community allotments and wasteful shops, there's plenty of opportunity to get out there, do it yourself, get a free meal and enjoy a bit of adventure while you're at it.

Words: Barney Guiton
Pictures: Simon Bray

1 comment:

  1. I tried this recently in Chorlton and my word, I got a lot of stuff. I'm not working at the moment and it was a last resort but now I think it's something I'd do regardless as the waste is just incredibly sad and pointless!