Trash! Saviour of the Foodiverse

Image: Mustafa Chaudhry

Image: Mustafa Chaudhry

Our need for food is something that, it is fair to say, never really wavers. Whether it’s that lavish meal funded by your parents upon their termly visit, or the fast food you order to satisfy those pangs of hunger that won’t go away, food can clearly be appreciated for several different reasons. However, with it comes the inevitable but unfortunate prospect of food waste.

According to the Food Waste Recycling Action Plan, a UK-based organisation working towards ‘positive environmental action’, 4.2m tonnes of the 7m tonnes of food waste thrown away each year can actually be eaten. There are, however, several local organisations that aim to play their part in dealing with this issue head-on and utilising all the food that we tend to turn a blind eye to.

Edible York is one such organisation, born from the efforts of food activists in the West Yorkshire village of Todmorden. They believed that the flowerbeds and compost heaps dotted around the village (‘propaganda beds’ as they later came to be termed) weren’t being used entirely effectively and thus decided to grow fruit and vegetables in these places to encourage the local community to grow their own. The local council, realising the success of the scheme, fully backed it and slowly but surely it made its way to the city of York where the scheme has now been in place since 2009.

Speaking to John Cossham, local environmentalist and blogger, it became clear how the Edible York scheme is intended to show people that going to the supermarket and buying produce like fruit and vegetables (which is often imported) is not always the best answer. Instead, growing it locally as part of a community-based initiative exemplifies how, in his words, “easy it is” to ensure food won’t be wasted and simply discarded. Growing it yourself provides almost more of a motivation to want to eat and appreciate the food in front of you – “there is no better feeling than harvesting a potato you yourself planted.”

The magnanimity of Edible York isn’t limited to utilising ‘propaganda beds’ for the organisation and they have several other ventures that ensure food is neither wasted nor neglected. A notable one is Abundance which tends to fruit, namely apples and pears, that would otherwise go to waste due to slight dam- age or the fact it may just have fallen from the tree and left to rot. The scheme uses the fruit collected and distributes it to the likes of refugee centres, schools, and homeless centres. Alternatively, if the fruit is slightly damaged it can instead be put to use by being turned into fresh juice or as a preserve. The onus of all of this is fundamentally to stop things from going to waste and subsequently adding to the increasing national issue of wastage; turning “something that would once be discarded and there’s always money for war but not to feed people finding a use for it seems to be something the organisation excels at.

York is spoilt for choice with the range of charitable organisations that encourage food sustainability by aiming to eradicate this widespread nonchalant attitude towards food waste. A key example would be Your Cafe, based in the Tang Hall Community Centre. It operates on a pay-as-you-feel scheme, providing hot weekly meals to a range of people, a number of whom may not necessarily have access to such meals on a regular basis. As an organisation, they rely on food donations whereby local businesses supply them with excess food that otherwise is likely be thrown away. Similarly to the other organisations, volunteers are crucial to the initiative’s success. It is evident that with the support they are given, and the successful manner in which they involve all members of the community, they tackle the food-waste issue well and come across as an effectively run outfit.

The abundant number of organisations that deal with the issue of food wastage in York means it is difficult to address all of them individually. Each certainly relies on a resolute set of dedicated volunteers who give up their time not just to ensure that food otherwise neglected can be put to good use but also to help and give something back to the local community and environment.

An organisation that conflates both of these elements in their initiative is the York-based faction of the global initiative Food Not Bombs. Originally set up in the US in 1980, the idea was for a group of volunteers to get together and serve hot meals, specifically vegan and vegetarian, in order to protest against several socio-economic issues and make the most of food that would have been otherwise wasted. Seeing the York-based group in action and speaking to both those serving and being served food gave a real insight into how important this service is for local people.

One gentleman being served, when asked about his interpretation of Food Not Bombs, responded that “there’s always money for war but not to feed people”, a comment that particularly resonated. Martin Readle, who has been involvedwith the York group since the start, was able to provide more information. The organisation used to “get food waste from the bins/skips behind supermarkets” (“freeganism” being the term he used) which would often still be edible but deemed waste due to being slightly blemished. A dent in a can, for example, was considered suitable reason to remove it from the shelves. These ‘freegan’ supplies would be supplemented by food donations from several volunteers.

They have seen some difficulty due to several different factors, one being a noticeable drop in the number of volunteers who can commit to the initiative on a weekly basis. Martin explained that recently they haven’t been able to commit people to collecting the food supermarkets choose to discard, mostly because they “don’t have the numbers for it right now.” This is something that they are looking to maybe return to and it’s understandable – if food is being discarded by the supermarkets yet is still edible then why shouldn’t it be used for a practical purpose?

That being said, the important thing with the aforementioned organisations, and something notably evident first-hand with Food Not Bombs, is the real sense of unity among the group of volunteers. To have a committed number of people using food that otherwise would have gone to waste is remarkable, and using it for the benefit of others in the community is something we can all learn a little from.

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