Supermarket food waste grabs headlines but the bigger story is in the supply chain

Food waste may not be the most glamorous of topics, yet in the last year it has been the focus of a BBC1 series, made front page news in the London Evening Standard on a near-nightly basis and, perhaps most surprisingly, caused Tesco CEO Dave Lewis to hug Sainsbury's CEO Mike Coupe live on stage at last month's Consumer Goods Forum in Paris.

Supermarket food waste grabs headlines but the bigger story is in the supply chain

With high-profile names like chef-turned campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall challenging the supermarkets on what they’re doing to tackle waste, Jamie Oliver championing wonky veg boxes, and a host of Michelin-starred chefs including Simon Rogan and Ollie Dabbous lending support to the Standard’s food waste campaign, you could be forgiven for thinking that diverting food that would otherwise be thrown away to feed people in need is a novel idea.

In fact, FareShare has been tackling the issues of food waste prevention and hunger for more than 20 years, mostly behind the scenes, where we connect hundreds of retailers and manufacturers with good quality, surplus food that would otherwise go to waste, with thousands of frontline charities such as homeless shelters, children’s breakfast clubs and older people’s lunch clubs, who transform that food into nutritious meals that they serve up alongside life-changing support to tackle the causes of hunger and get people back on their feet.

For the most part, we focus on accessing and redistributing food that becomes surplus long before it reaches a supermarket shelf, at manufacturers, processors and distribution centres, because of forecasting errors, quality control issues, damaged packaging, and so on. This food usually has plenty of life left on it, so has the greatest potential to be redistributed, and there can be substantial volumes per site, so it’s more efficient than accessing the often smaller amounts of food from individual stores, restaurants or households.

Yet the media spotlight almost always focuses on ‘back of store’ food waste – unsold produce that supermarkets, sandwich shops and other high street outlets throw in the bin, that could be used to feed hungry people. Although it’s the most visible form of food waste, in reality the food discarded by supermarkets only makes up 2% of the incredible 10 million tonnes of food that consumers and businesses waste each year in the UK, or less than 1% if you take into account produce that goes to waste on farms.

As food waste attracts more column inches, numerous charities and businesses have sprung up seeking to tackle the issue, from platforms like FoodCloud that connect retailers with local community groups, to local food redistribution schemes like The Felix Project that collect end of day surplus in a van and deliver it to local charities. Apps like Too Good to Go and OLIO focus on redistributing edible surplus from restaurants and even people’s own homes.   

FareShare continues to champion redistribution of surplus food from the supply chain – where there’s at least 270,000 tonnes of perfectly edible food going to waste each year, enough to provide 650 million meals for people in need. But in partnership with Tesco we’ve also developed FareShare FoodCloud, an award-winning solution that supports retailers to redistribute store-level surplus, safely and consistently, to thousands of good causes across the UK.

Tackling 1% of the problem might seem like a distraction from the bigger gains to be made elsewhere, but it still represents an astonishing amount of food: since FareShare FoodCloud launched earlier this year, it has enabled charities to collect nearly three million meals that might have gone to waste. Importantly, the scheme also raises awareness, helping us to attract more volunteers, more funding opportunities, and greater volumes of surplus food from the industry – strengthening the work we do across the supply chain and enabling us to make a bigger difference to the thousands of charities we support.  

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie