Recycling Our Food Waste: Putting Perfectly Good Food On The Plates Of Those In Need

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Around 1.3 billion tonnes of food is discarded every year globally. If food waste were a country it would be the world’s third largest carbon emitter, according to a recent UN report. At a time when an estimated 925 million people don’t have enough food to eat, it seems critical to address our systemic problem with tossing out perfectly good food. Thankfully, a number of not-for-profits are coming to the rescue to help solve both problems—saving food from being dumped in landfills and feeding people in need at the same time. 

On a recent sizzling spring day, Cathie Stephens walks me into a brightly lit food pantry to show me this week’s bounty of fresh produce.  Glossy silverbeet, bright yellow capsicums, desiree potatoes, loaves of bread and a couple of bunches of bananas are laid out in crates across a table in the centre of the small room.  It doesn’t matter that the food was all rejected from a local supermarket—it would all be turned into hearty potato casseroles, veggie soups and banana muffins throughout the week.

“If we have to hide vegetables in a sauce, we’ll do that,” Stephens smiles. As a youth worker for this inner city Salvation Army Youth Outreach Centre in Brisbane, part of Stephens’ job is ensuring the 25 or so at-risk 12 to 21 year olds who come through the centre each day are given healthy meals. And without this spread of fruits and vegetables, preparing nourishing dishes would be a lot harder.

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Today’s provisions are thanks to SecondBite, a national nonprofit that collects discarded food from grocery stores and other food retailers, and delivers it to organisations that help people in need. Before the outreach centre began receiving its weekly delivery from SecondBite, “we would have to spend the money to provide the meals, and we couldn’t afford to provide the meat and the vegetables,” explains Stephens, wincing at the memory.

Now she’s able to serve up a variety of colourful dishes, the ever-changing menu often reflecting what’s in season.  Knowing the kids will be provided with a least one healthy meal each day means they’re more equipped to deal with what the day brings. “If you can make meals that are simple, cheap and healthy, I think your health is much better in the long run and it helps you face the day,” says Stephens.

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Although it’s difficult to pin down an exact number, an estimated one in two hundred people in Australia are homeless on any given night. Many of the young people who rely on this youth centre sleep on the streets, have dropped out of school and often come from volatile home environments.

“So we provide a safe place for them to come and ensure that they do get a good meal—at least one meal a day we know for sure—but also they’re able to shower and wash their clothes and maybe pick up some other clothes as well.” Stephens notes that the centre is stocked with fresh socks and underwear. “We essentially provide their basic needs,” she says.

The centre’s youth workers also provide support in court appearances, help with probation and offer youth justice services to assist with any legal matters.

But it’s the meals that are the highlight, that help bring everyone together, insists Stephens.

“They come here for the food… I like to think more than anything else,” she chuckles, “more than the case management, let me tell you!”

Ozharvest, another food recycling organisation, delivers meat to the centre each week, while SecondBite donates the produce and baked goods.

“It’s fabulous what SecondBite and other similar agencies are doing because there are a lot of people and families in need,” she says.

SecondBite was established in Victoria in 2005. Since then it’s slowly rolled out across other states and territories. In the last year, 3.9 million kilograms (8.6 million pounds) of food was rescued in Australia, which translates into roughly 7.8 million wholesome meals. The organisation launched in Queensland in January 2012.

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Daniel Arklay

On the morning we met, Daniel Arklay, SecondBite’s state manager for Queensland, had so far collected 400 kilos of produce and bread from local food retailers. He would deliver it to 12 organisations that day. Just because the food isn’t deemed worthy enough to grace the shelves of a grocery store doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it, explains Arklay.

“Basically it’s any food that they can’t sell for quality control reasons. It could be an oversupply. It could be the wrong size, wrong shape, wrong colour, seasonality,” he says. “It’s still perfectly good food to eat, it’s just that they can’t sell it for those reasons.”

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From left: Greg Tate, Cathie Stephens, Daniel Arklay, Clinton Beale

Supermarket behemoth Coles is by far the largest SecondBite food donor in Queensland, accounting for nearly 90 percent of the food collected throughout the state. Arklay says he’s working to sign up other retailers, such as restaurants, farmers and distribution and packaging sheds. “Anywhere there is fresh food going to waste, we’re certainly looking into trying to access that,” he says. He hopes that soon the list of sources donating their leftover food will be much more diverse, as it is in other states, including Victoria.

And with our food being thrown out in epic proportions, we need organisations like SecondBite to catch the runoff and divert it to the hungry and homeless.

Of all the material that ends up in landfills in the United States, food scraps are number one, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The same is true in Australia, based on a 2010 report on waste, which estimates that over 35 percent of municipal waste (4.45 million tonnes) is actually food material. And in the United Kingdom and Australia, as much as 40 percent of fruits and vegetables are discarded before ever hitting the shelves. For more on the breakdown of food being tossed out, see the National Resources Defense Council’s graphic below.

(NRDC)

(NRDC) Click to enlarge

This year, SecondBite hopes to save 4.5 million kilograms (9.9 million pounds) of food, diverting it away from landfills and onto the plates of those who need it the most. That’s enough for 9 million meals.

“But not only that,” says Arklay, “the effect on the environment that rescuing that four and a half million kilos has is significant.” The amount of food SecondBite collected and redistributed last year is equivalent to saving 23.4 million tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, according to data provided by SecondBite.

In addition to feeding the homeless, SecondBite’s supply also serves victims of domestic violence, people with disabilities, low-income families and at-risk youth.

Recent data is lacking, but a 2004 report on food insecurity estimates that around five percent of Australians have “inadequate access to food, inadequate supply” or aren’t able to appropriately prepare food.” An estimated 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure “for at least some time during the year in 2012,” which means they lacked access to a sufficient amount of food.

“It is a big problem and it would be lovely to see ourselves out of business one day because that would mean that everybody is being fed and everyone has access to safe, fresh and affordable food,” says Arklay.

Arklay’s enthusiasm for the work he does is palpable; calling the job rewarding is an understatement. “It’s nice to know you can go home at the end of the day and feel like you’re a part of something really successful and that you are helping people and the environment,” he says, beaming.

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Back with youth worker Cathie Stephens, the conversation returns to homeless youth in the Brisbane community, who are often misunderstood. She believes most people aren’t aware there’s even a problem. “People in general just don’t have any idea,” she says.

People usually don’t understand why a young person is homeless, observes Stephens. “I suspect that people will see kids on the street and think they’re up to mischief, that they’re no good and question where their parents are, without realising the whole culture of the homeless youth.”

That doesn’t mean to say some of them aren’t up to mischief, but Stephens argues it’s imperative to see the whole picture before passing judgment.

They don’t realise, “the fact that a lot of them can’t go home, it’s not safe to go home and they are suffering,” she sighs. In her experience people generally have simplistic views about why a person is homeless.

Though they may not have much, thanks to the Stephens and her dedicated colleagues, at the very least the kids here won’t go hungry. “I hate that there has to be a place like this but I’m glad there is a place like this,” says Stephens.

Food is more than just sustenance.  It facilitates a fundamental social interaction that can unite and dignify.

“We try to do a sit-down meal once a week or once a fortnight at least where we all sit down around a table and for maybe ten minutes you can get them all at one spot, because it’s about creating a home environment, it’s about socialising them.

After all, where there’s food, people will gather.

For more information, visit SecondBite online, where you can find out how to get involved and read all the recent research on the impacts of food rescue from the organisation’s Research and Development department.

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