Being a bit of a food enthusiast (aren’t we all?), I love a bit of Masterchef, the challenge I enjoy most being the waste and scraps challenge, where the chefs make gourmet meals out of vegetable peelings, fish heads, rough meat cuts and wrinkled leaves; in other words, food that is destined for the bin. The chefs always come up with something impressive. It serves to highlight how so much of the food we get rid of is still good to eat.
Restaurant discards are just the tip of the mountain of edible food that is thrown away. There is waste at all stages of the chain, from the fields to the store to the warehouse to the shop to the home. In the UK alone, we send a staggering 10 million tonnes of food to landfill each year. It seems doubly unjust, then, that 20% percent of the population lives in food poverty.
Many organisations seek to redress this balance, one being FoodCycle, a charity that takes surplus food from local shops, turns it into a delicious meal, then serves it to those who need it.
FoodCycle started in London in 2008, and there are now projects all over the country that provide community meals using food waste, cooked by volunteers. I have been volunteering at FoodCycle Bath for a few months, and today I visited the project in Bristol to see how things work there.
Bristol FoodCycle is unique in that the surplus is collected by bicycle. Four dedicated cyclists trundle around the local shops with their trailers, collecting the stock that’s looking a bit sorry for itself, then deliver it to Barton Hill Settlement, a community space and health centre. The first part of the challenge is to work out what to cook based on what has been provided – there is always plenty of food, but being faced with a ton of cabbage and little else tests the creativity somewhat.
With a glut of sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, aubergines, spring onions, mushrooms, fruit and bread, we set to work. For starters it would be a soup made with roasted peppers, fennel and tomatoes, for mains it would be a mixed vegetable curry, and for dessert a banana cake with fruit salad and custard. Soon everyone was armed with a board and a knife and the chopping began.
Over the course of the next three hours we prepared food, drank tea, chatted, sang along to the radio and danced round the kitchen. It was a case of rescuing the good bits of the vegetables for the soup or curry; even though there was a fair amount that got the chop, most of it was perfectly good to eat. It seems shocking that so much food is chucked, especially from supermarkets where best before dates encourage pre-emptive binning. Bendy carrots? No problem! Chuck them in a soup.
By the time our guests arrived we were ready to serve the (literal) fruits of our labours. There was far too much food for our meal requirements, so the remainder went on the ‘free for all’ table. The community hall was full of people from all walks of life, from eco-warriors who hate to see food wasted, to those who value the opportunity to socialise and meet new people, and those who could simply do with a bit of help sourcing their next meal. All lined up to receive their bowl of piping hot soup, accompanied by rounds of bread. The main course curry went down well, but the absolute star of the show was the banana cake for dessert. Light, moist and with a slight crunch on the outside, it was a triumph, and despite everyone being stuffed to the brim, there were plenty of requests for more. It’s always a pleasure (and relief) when the guests come back for seconds, and though we never know how many people will turn up, or how much food there’ll be, no one ever goes hungry.
What a worthwhile way to spend the afternoon, and with so much food in my tummy there would be no need for dinner. I cycled away with a smile on my face and a rack groaning under the weight of panniers stuffed with surplus food.
FoodCycle runs sessions all over the country. Find your local one here.