Sunday, 19 January 2014

Waste not, want not!

Once the festivities of December have come to an end, with its giving of gifts, spectacular feasts, and time with loved ones, thoughts often turn to restraint. January is a time when we are most likely to tighten our belts – both financially after the impact of the most expensive time of year, and in terms of our health, when we cut back on things we enjoy but which we know, in excess, can cause us harm. In this way, the start of the year is a great time to make sure that we take responsibility - for the costs of our lifestyles, for the need to look after our planet and recycle all that packaging and paper so prevalent in December, for our own wellbeing, and to consider those who are less fortunate, who have a less stable support network than we may have ourselves.

Much has been reported recently of the growing issue of food poverty in this country, reported to affect four million people. The Trussell Trust, which is the largest operator of food banks in the UK, reported a three-fold increase in the number of people it distributed food to between April and September 2013 compared to the same period in 2012[1]. The Red Cross started sending volunteers to supermarkets at the end of November to help collect food donations from shoppers to distribute to foodbanks in association with the charity Fareshare[2]. The UK’s first social supermarket, selling products deemed unfit for sale due to having damaged packaging or being the wrong shape or weight, opened in December in Goldthorpe, a former mining town classed as an area of high social deprivation. A petition declaring food poverty levels in the UK as a public health emergency has now been delivered to Parliament demanding the issue is officially addressed by the government.  And yet we throw away 7 million tonnes of food and drink from our homes in the UK every year, more than half of which could have been eaten[3].

Fantastic ingredients donated for a FoodCycle session
in December - we had to google salsify!
I have recently become a volunteer Hub Leader at my local FoodCycle in the hope that I can do my bit to address these issues. FoodCycle is a national charity that aims to turn food surplus into healthy, free three-course, restaurant-style meals, thus reducing waste and also providing a way to build communities and feed those who may struggle to feed themselves. There are seventeen FoodCycle Hubs in the UK, all run by teams of local volunteers such as myself donating their time, working with food donated from local supermarkets including Sainsbury's, using facilities in ‘donated’ cooking spaces like local community centres. We don’t use meat or fish, meaning the food risks are low, and welcomed financial donations from within the community help keep us equipped with any kitchen tools and extra ingredients we may need. Every week is like a mass-scale production of ‘Ready Steady Cook’ as we have little to no idea of what ingredients we will have available and with volunteers changing every week, it is a challenge to balance the cooking skills of the kitchen staff with the commitments of delivering a tasty restaurant-style meal to an unknown number of diners! The volunteers take it in turns to eat as well, allowing us to get to know our guests and engage with the community.

By the end of the session there will inevitably be some ‘surplus surplus’, ingredients we had too little of to use or that didn’t fit in with our menu, and we do our best to ensure even these are put to good use by providing a takeaway service. Having worked in both a supermarket and a number of eateries myself I am only too aware of how much wastage goes on in both ends of the food industry and every time I volunteer at my local Hub I go home exhausted but elated to have done my very small bit for the universe. You can, too by signing up here.

You may have noticed, as did so many people (myself included) that you had food that didn’t get eaten over the Christmas period, despite all good intentions. Here are a few tips to help you control your waste this month, and to lessen that inevitability for next year.

  • Buy wisely

Original picture can be found here
We’ve all been there. The biggest local supermarket on Christmas eve was a sea of furrowed brows, discarded shopping lists written on card envelopes fluttering in the bottom of trolleys and tired parents wishing they’d done it online. Breathe. It’s January now, those dark days are over. Never go food shopping when you are hungry, as you will buy more than you need. And bear in mind the lovefoodhatewaste portion calculator. For example, it recommended 8 brussel sprouts, 80g carrots, 5 small roast potatoes and 140g turkey per person for Christmas dinner. This comes in pretty close to the portions for the ‘perfect Christmas dinner’ revealed by food psychologists Dr David Lewis and Dr Margaret Yufera-Leitch to leave you satisfied but not stuffed. How many of you had leftover sprouts after Christmas dinner, leaving you with the dilemma of choosing between food waste and extra ‘ammunition’ for someone’s digestive system the next day?

  • Stock up
Many of the big supermarkets are giving advice on leftovers right now. Once your roast meat has done its Sunday lunch duty, remove all the meat you can from the carcass and set it aside. This can be used for the next two days for a delicious curry, pasta dish or pie. Otherwise, portion up cold leftover meat and freeze it in clearly marked airtight bags for up to three months[4]. Defrost thoroughly before use. The meat bones can then be boiled up with a roughly chopped onion, carrot and celery stick, a bay leaf or two and a few whole peppercorns to make a stock you can strain and use or cool and freeze for soup.

  • And freeze!

The freezer can be a wonderful friend for many leftover ingredients. Eggs nearing their ‘Use By’ date? Raw eggs can be beaten and frozen for up to three months. Clingfilm butter and freeze it for cake day for up to six. I find well-wrapped sliced bread toasts better as the inside of the slice dries out less in the toaster. And of course, leftover herbs can be chopped and popped into icecube trays for when you need them. 

  • Get rotten 

If you don’t already have one, this may be the time to set up a compost heap. Try to ensure that food that really can’t be used any other way is at least composted where possible. This excludes bread, meat, fish and dairy. Compost does wonders for your garden (where you could also try growing your own herbs and vegetables in pots), but if you don’t or can’t have your own heap, it is likely that your local community garden will do and they may welcome your compostable waste. My local FoodCycle uses herbs and vegetables from our local community garden, who accepts and composts our food waste after sessions and this makes our community links even stronger.

These tips for resourcefulness should help anyone, whether you have too much food or not enough. At Christmas and in January, it is more striking than usual that while there seems to be more than enough food to go round, many still go hungry. So if you’re lucky enough not to be part of the reason that food poverty is being put to debate, at least make sure you’re not part of the reason so much food goes to landfill.

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