From surplus supermarkets to public refrigerators to food-tech, initiatives are proliferating in the fight against food waste. A worldwide round-up, from Denmark to India.
While in Copenhagen, I decide to visit the neighborhood of Nørrebrogade, home to the famous surplus supermarket Wefood, not far from a second-hand clothes shop and the Red Cross store. Inside, it’s anything but a dump—clean, well lit and well organized, even if all its products are unsellable in commercial supermarkets, due to imminent expiration dates, imperfections in appearance or packaging, or poor stock management.
On this particular day, the refrigerators are full of marked down containers, boxes of soya milk are piled up in a corner, slightly wilted green vegetables are displayed on tables. Above a box of blackened bananas and slowly rotting strawberries, a sign displays today’s price: free.
In a large basket by the entrance, small packets of granola, “best before” next week, are priced at 2 for 1 krone (around 16 cents). I take four packets. On the counter near the register is a bookshelf of used books. “Just help yourself,” says the cashier. I pick out a novel in English by a favorite author, hand the cashier a 2-krone coin for the granola, which I put directly inside my backpack, and go on my merry way.
Wefood Nørrebrogade is the second surplus supermarket in Copenhagen, after the first opened in Amagerbrogade in February 2016 by DanChurchAid (Folkekirkens Nødhjælp), a Danish charity organization that has been fighting hunger since 1922. Wefood sources all its food from commercial surplus, operates with a staff of volunteers, and uses the sales proceeds to feed hungry people in countries such South Sudan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh.
This initiative is also part of a government project to reduce food waste in Denmark, following a meeting between the charity, the Danish ministry of food and agriculture, and the head of corporate responsibility at a major Danish supermarket. This small country is also lucky to have its own larger-than-life activist Selina Juul, whose national campaign Stop Wasting Food (Stop Spild Af Mad), launched in 2008, has reduced Danish food waste by 25% since 2010.
Stop Wasting Food, Selina Juul at TEDxCopenhagen (2012):
But food waste extends well beyond Denmark. Globally, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that approximately one third of our food is lost or wasted on the way “from farm to fork”. in developing countries, the loss occurs more at the beginning of the supply chain, with food lost from harvests and damaged in transport. In rich countries, waste is widespread further down the chain, at the retail level and in individual households. At the same time, some 900 million people don’t have enough to eat. The problem is not food supply, but access to food.
Rescued food not just for the poor
In countries that can afford to throw what they eat in the trash, the movement against food waste works to intercept, rescue and redistribute this lost food before it becomes inedible, and especially, before it ends up in landfill. While food banks and other soup kitchens such as Les Restos du Cœur in France have been sourcing food this way for the past 30 years, the more recent trend is to provide access to this surplus food for everyone, through more mainstream food outlets—not only to avoid food waste but also to raise awareness of it.
Much of this eco-activism is directed at supermarkets, one of the biggest cogs in the capitalist machine, which speculate on consumer demand, incite consumers to buy more than they need, march to the beat of often arbitrary expiration dates, and dictate the perfect appearance of market produce. The majority of agricultural food loss is suffered by farmers in poor countries.
In Australia, OzHarvest, a food rescue organization founded in 2004, was directly inspired by Wefood to open its own OzHarvest Market in Sydney in April 2017, with the slogan “Take what you need, give if you can.” Donations are used to pay for meals for hungry Australians.
OzHarvest introduces its “super new market”:
In Germany, activist Nicole Klaski opened the surplus supermarket The Good Food in Cologne in February 2017, operating under the same principles of donations and raising awareness among the general public.
In the United States, since June 2015, the nonprofit supermarket Daily Table in Boston sells not only surplus food at low prices but also cooked deli food to take away, and even offers free cooking lessons. Its head chef, Ismail Samad, cofounded The Gleanery, a community restaurant in Vermont specialized in gourmet dishes made from surplus produce, while its founder and president, Doug Rauch, is the former president of Trader Joe’s health food supermarkets and the current CEO of Conscious Capitalism.
French food fights
In France, an anti-food waste law passed in February 2016 mandates that supermarkets must donate their unsold food to registered charities. The law was partly the result of a petition initiated by Courbevoie councilor Arash Derambarsh, which collected 210,000 signatures. More than a year later, hundreds of new organizations officially approved to redistribute food have been created, and the measure has inspired other governments to take similar action, in Peru, Finland, Germany and Italy. And the fight continues, in Europe and globally.
It’s unfortunate, however, that the French politician didn’t dialogue more constructively with existing food rescue organizations in the field (including Les Restos du Cœur), which are opposed to this law that allows supermarkets to simply pass the baton to charities. And they aren’t the only ones to declare that this “solution” barely scratches the surface of the problem. Instead, they suggest reforming the system further up the supply chain.
In Paris, Disco Soupe (2012) cooperates with its gleaning colleagues at Re-Bon (2014) in Nantes to use unharvested fruits and vegetables, in addition to unsold produce, for live music events where they make soups, salads and smoothies.
Disco Soupe workshop at Fablab Festival in Toulouse in May 2017:
In Lyon, Les Gars’pilleurs (2013) advocates dumpster-diving outside supermarkets and other businesses to rescue food and redistribute it for free in public places—“supermarket dumpster-diving should be a transition mode of consumption”—calling attention to the excess of food waste.
Online, Zéro-Gâchis (2011) works directly with supermarkets such as Carrefour to facilitate local consumers’ access to a dedicated area in each store that offers products nearing their expiration date at reduced prices, through their website interface.
Internationally, many mobile applications are dedicated to reducing food waste in shops and restaurants. Some, like Yo No Desperdicio in Spain and Olio in the UK, also tackle household waste by connecting individual neighbors through C2C. The Dutch experimental app Cheetah helps truck drivers transporting food produce in Ghana to find the most efficient route to their destination.
Presentation of Cheetah smartphone app:
The Yellow Fridge, a French project by Laurence Kerjean, is a smart refrigerator (online and chatbot) that emerged from a hackathon in November 2016 to reduce food waste in the office.
On a larger scale, the food-waste-tech movement originated in Germany in 2013, with the volunteer-powered platform Foodsharing.de. This online network connects consumers to each other and with food shop managers to give and receive access to surplus food. But Foodsharing has also deployed some 300 shared refrigerators in all of Germany’s big cities, where anybody can put or take food for free.
Since then, “solidarity fridges” have been popping up little by little in cities such as Brixton (The People’s Fridge), Marseille (Emmaüs Pointe Rouge), Paris (Secours Populaire and at La Cantine du 18), in the little community of Galdakao in Basque Country (Nevera Solidaria)…
Back in the U.S., the activist organization Food Not Bombs mixed food with politics for the first time in 1981 when it served vegetarian meals cooked from rescued fruits and vegetables at a nuclear arms protest in Boston. Since then, Food Not Bombs has inspired autonomous chapters worldwide, advocating social change through non-violence under the banner “food is a right, not a privilege”.
Many more initiatives worldwide, channeling the right to civil disobedience, independently intercept, transport and redistribute food surplus from businesses to hungry people, often operating within a grey legal zone. It’s the case of the Robin Hood Army in India, directly inspired by Re-Food (2011) in Portugal. Since it launched in August 2014 with six Robins in New Delhi, the all-volunteer “army” has grown to 8870 Robins who have served more than 2 million people in 41 cities in India and Southeast Asia.
Another individual raging against the quasi-institutional system of food wastage at the distribution level, former gourmet chef Adam Smith founded The Real Junk Food Project in his native Leeds in December 2013 in order to tackle the urgency of the problem head on. Through his professional network in the food industry, he intercepts surplus food from non-supermarket sources (restaurants, catering, wholesalers, food photographers…) to make it accessible to anyone in the form of cooked meals in his Pay As You Feel cafes. The concept is that anyone who eats in the cafe offers something in exchange, according to the value they give their food—time, energy or skills to help the cafe, or simply a financial donation.
The Real Junk Food Project, Adam Smith at TEDxWarwick (2015):
The Real Junk Food Project now counts more than 50 cafes in the UK, Europe and Australia. In 2015, the project extended to schools with the Fuel for School initiative. In 2016, the first pay-as-you-feel “warehouse” supermarket opened its doors in Pudsey near Leeds. The ultimate goal of The Real Junk Food Project? To end food waste… and put itself out of business.
Tristram Stuart, a British activist and iconic figure of the global fight against food loss and waste at every step of the supply chain, emphasizes the fact that the problem is both economic and ecological. Rotting food produces large quantities of methane and contributes significantly to global warming. If food waste were a country, according to the FAO, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases with 3.3 billion tons, just after China and the United States.
“Why Are We Wasting So Much Food?”, Tristram Stuart (2015):
Since the publication of Stuart’s book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal in 2009, his organization Feedback has continued to combat food waste. First, with its flagship Feeding the 5000 events (London, Paris, Dublin, Milan, Athens, New York, Sydney, Amsterdam, Brussels…), in which 5000 people are fed a gourmet meal cooked exclusively from rescued food surplus. In 2012, Feedback launched the Gleaning Network, and in 2013 The Pig Idea, a campaign to defy the European post foot-and-mouth disease law that prohibits feeding restaurant surplus food to pigs. Commercial pig feed raises the prices of wheat, maize and soja, while soja harvests are literally eating away at the Amazonian rainforest. Not to mention that anaerobic digestion, a form of industrial compost, produces about 20 times more carbon emissions than pigswill.
Meanwhile, Stuart and his Feedback team pursue their research to find alternatives to food wastage in the short term and a viable model to reform our currently dysfunctional food supply system in the long term.
The global revolution of our food supply system may not be a simple affair, but the message of every single project and organization that advocates it, is unambiguous and always the same: Stop wasting food!