Richard Walker

We need to have an honest conversation about food waste

Today I spoke to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on food waste. This is what I said:

In tackling food waste, we need to be honest about the challenges as well as the opportunities.

Firstly, food waste is not a solution to poverty. The issue of food waste is inextricably tied up with that of poverty. We have 4.5 million kids living in poverty and one in seven parents relying on handouts to feed them. While part of the food waste debate is on redistributing to those in need, we need to ensure that this narrative does not normalise the idea of food banks and view food surplus as a solution to poverty.

Ultimately, we need a step change in societal and business behaviour and more empathetic policy decisions, starting with consistent, nationwide food waste collections from home. And we also need industrial composting at scale, which can have wider environmental benefits – I hope this will be an outcome of the DEFRA consultation on recycling which has just closed.

We also need an honest conversation about managing food waste in business. Although retailers only account for 2% of all food waste, I do believe that there’s room for naming and shaming – but we need to look at objective research on the reality of managing food waste within different sized businesses. Large supermarkets, such as Tesco, are doing an excellent job but there are practical advantages in what can be achieved as a superstore compared to small high street stores such as Iceland.

What we really need is a community distribution system for the small amounts of food left over each day in our almost 1,000 stores. A national system working with accredited partners, with a legally robust framework to guarantee food safety.

There is business willpower to tackle this issue but we need a policy framework which helps us. Let’s look at global best practice. The US has introduced corporate tax relief on donated food. French retailers who donate food surplus to charities receive a 60% tax break.

Most importantly: we need to change the narrative on food waste.

Our food waste conversation remains a very middle class one and we need to make this discussion more accessible.

WRAP concludes that the average family wastes £70 a month on food, yet this is a not a story we recognise in our customers who may be shopping on very limited budgets.

Hysterical calls for an end to “buy one get one free” deals miss the point by failing to recognise the legion of real people reliant on these deals to feed their children.

I would like to see a demographic breakdown of food waste so we can target messages more appropriately – anecdotal evidence suggests people who are cash rich and time poor are the main food waste culprits: not my customers.

Finally (and I would say this, but): we need to talk less about freezing leftovers and more about buying frozen.

When we ran a study with Manchester Met University working with 20 families for 20 weeks and switching them to frozen food, they ate healthily, saved half their budget and halved their food waste.

We’ve been using wonky veg for the last 49 years, solving seasonality, using ships not planes – and a few years ago our technical team extended the shelf life of our products from one to two years.

A YouGov survey we commissioned tells us 20% of under 50s would buy frozen to reduce their food waste.

So: it shouldn’t be about celebrity chefs – let’s listen to real people.

My 1,000 Talking Shop reps are embedded in communities all over the UK, living within three miles of their store and serving their friends and family.

They have the insights we need.

One such lady, who works for us in the North West, told me: “If you’re a family with only £25 a week to spend on food, you are not wasting food. In fact, you are an expert in providing for your family on a limited budget. If we want to learn about how to prevent food waste, these are the people we need to listen to.’

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