TL;DR: In Australia we dump perfectly good food while some Australians experience food insecurity; food waste in landfill emits a significant proportion of the world's greenhouse gases; instead of buying "new food", it's cheaper and more fun to buy rescued food; tips for finding a rescued food source or rescuing unwanted food in creative ways. Yay!
Hello friends! Today I’m going to evangelise about the joy of eating “recycled groceries” (as I fondly, and somewhat inaccurately, like to call them).
I’ve recently made it my mission, as much as possible, to stop buying new food and start saving unwanted food from waste instead. I no longer shop at supermarkets, but look for ways to rescue food that isn’t wanted or isn’t good for sale in a mainstream retail context.
I’m not talking about dumpster diving. I’m talking about a whole new way to go food shopping.
Each year in Australia, over 5 million tonnes of food ends up as landfill. That’s a conservative estimate – another source I read claimed it was as much as 44 tonnes.
Some of this food waste occurs domestically, when we throw away unwanted leftovers or produce that has been allowed to go soggy in the bottom of the fridge.
A LOT of the waste occurs higher up in the food supply chain, when perfectly edible products are taken off supermarket shelves and discarded because they’re close to or past their “best before” date, or because the product line isn’t moving.
And heaps of waste occurs even higher up, before food even reaches the retail environment. A huge proportion of fruit and vegetables are discarded before being offered for sale because they don’t meet standards of appearance (appearance!!!) or size – small, spotty or weird-shaped fruit and veg apparently don’t sell. And sometimes packaged products are discarded because of manufacturing errors (the wrong label gets put on the can) or incidents in transit (boxes look a bit squashed, so they don’t put them out for sale), or simply because the retailer accidentally ordered too much.
There’s enough food produced in the world to feed everybody on the planet, yet millions go hungry while others chuck away funny-shaped carrots and dented cans of chickpeas.
When food goes into landfill it emits dangerous greenhouse gases as it breaks down. An estimated 8% of dangerous greenhouse gases are emitted by wasted food; if food waste were a country it’d be the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.
(Find references and more food waste facts here.)
Awareness is growing about the problem of food waste, and organised solutions are popping up everywhere.
My favourite solution, and the one I’m going to bang on about today, is the rescued food market model.
Rescued food markets stock food that is perfectly edible and within its use-by date. The food is donated by supermarkets and other retailers when it’s not fit for sale in those environments, for the reasons I talked about above.
Many stores like this sell food at a reduced price or on a pay-if-you-can basis, to make nutritious food accessible for people who struggle to afford it. However, you don’t have to be experiencing food insecurity to shop at a rescued food market.
Most of these stores welcome shoppers from all walks of life – there’s no income test at the door. In fact, it’s more and more common to see these stores marketing themselves as a place for everybody to come and help fight climate change by keeping good food out of landfill. Money raised at these stores typically goes to fund community projects run by the organisations, and all customers are appreciated.
I shop at a rescued food market in my neighbourhood and I LOVE it. It’s so much more personal than shopping at the supermarket – I go on the same day each week, so I usually see the same volunteers, and we’ve started to get to know each other. It’s beautiful to see a cross-section of the community literally rubbing shoulders (the aisles are narrow!) – I shop alongside refugees, parents with tiny babies, elderly people and differently abled people as well as people who look just like me. Plus, the food is freaking awesome. And cheap.
Supply varies week to week but I’m typically always able to buy canned and dried legumes, rice and pasta, oats or vita-brits, sauces and seasonings, veggie patties and vegan meat alternatives, sometimes plant milks, and often specialty products like raw vegan protein powder (1kg for $4), Halo Top dairy-free ice cream ($2 per tub) and stevia ($1.50 for a 500g packet). Since we started shopping this way, we’ve rarely had to go to the supermarket.
A bonus (for me) is that I don’t feel guilty about buying packaged foods this way, since it’s definitely destined for landfill if I don’t buy it, and the money I spend isn’t going back to the companies that manufactured the food (so I’m not contributing any financial incentive to the continued supply of the packaging). When buying “new” food I try to avoid packaging as much as possible, which is fine most of the time, but sometimes I just don’t have the energy to make another batch of almond milk or a block of tofu. At those times I reach into the freezer or pantry for some convenient packaged food that I bought from the rescued food store, instead of caving in and buying a plastic-wrapped product at the supermarket.
If you live in a capital city, it’s likely there’s a rescued food store somewhere near you. Ask around, google it, or contact local community centres to see if they can point you in the right direction. (In Sydney, I’m aware of the OzHarvest market, the Anglicare mobile community food pantry and the Food Pantry at Addison Rd Community Centre.)
If you don’t have access to a rescued food store, there are still ways you can rescue food that’s likely to be wasted.