According to WRAP’s latest report which documented trends in surplus food redistribution across the U.K., an estimated 92,000 tonnes of surplus food was reshared through commercial and charitable channels in 2020.
This marks a 45% year-on-year increase, determining a record year for the nation’s excess food redistribution. This historic figure was partly caused by the impact of the global pandemic on supply chains and the country’s response to Covid-19.
In their latest findings, WRAP has valued the food redistributed in the U.K. during 2020 to be worth £280m. The organisation has traced this phenomenon across the five-year period from 2015 to 2020 where surplus food redistribution tripled and the cumulative value of salvaged food sits at an estimated £1bn.
This exponential rise varied across commercial and charitable distribution channels where there was a reported 450% increase in food redistributed by charities compared to a 66% increase from the commercial sector.
The significant shift in patterns of surplus food redistribution is largely due to the impact of the global pandemic on consumption and lifestyle changes. Alongside this, the surge in levels of food poverty and awareness on sustainability issues related to waste has propelled the nation towards a new sharing movement.
Secondly, WRAP also cited the importance of policy and funding commitments as contributors to these record numbers. This included the ‘ Courtald Commitment 2025’ and £12m in grant funding issued by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs throughout 2020. This figure included the £3.8m Covid-19 Emergency Surplus Food Grant scheme and the £3m Resource Action Fund Food Waste Prevention Grants.
Nation’s reaction to Covid-19 encouraged surplus food redistribution
The closure of hospitality industries, coupled with working from home and pillaged supermarket shelves galvanised players in the food industry to identify new opportunities at different nodes in the supply chain, both upstream and downstream, to mitigate waste and redistribute surplus food.
Richard Smith, Supply Manager at The Felix Project noted “The efforts of the whole food supply chain illustrated the growing appetite to redistribute food to those who need it most, rather than letting it go to waste. Much of this shift was born out of the pandemic, and we must ensure it doesn’t waiver going forward.” The London-based food charity, recorded an increase from 6.4 million meals delivered to 21.1 million meals from 2019 to 2020.
App-based organisations like Too Good To Go, transformed the challenges of the pandemic into an opportunity to effectively redirect excess food stock and have worked to save 3.7 million meals from going to waste. With over 5.7 million users in the U.K. alone, the app has become a popular method to connect customers with unsold food from their network of 12,800 business partners which includes restaurants and stores.
Paschalis Loucaides, UK Managing Director of the company noted that “As the lockdowns progressed, food waste moved further up the supply chain. Wholesalers and producers who usually supplied the hospitality and leisure industries suddenly had thousands of pounds worth of stock with nowhere for it to go. We discovered that the app model also works for industry types of surplus food.”
In the last year, new trends have emerged on the categories of extra food available. For example, surplus fresh produce such as meat, fish and eggs, more than doubled between 2019 and 2020. Richard Smith from The Felix Project identified the value in the increased availability of fresh foods: “We’re able to provide nutritious foods to communities who need it – whether that be school programmes or charities that turn the surplus food into ready-made meals.” he added.
The WRAP figures highlight that in 2020, the equivalent of 220 million meals in the U.K. were officially redistributed. This pattern was surfacing even prior to the pandemic as the volume of food reshared by the hospitality and food service industries grew by 340% between 2015 to 2020. This trajectory was also catalysed by the capacity of restaurant chains like The Ivy and Hilton Hotels, who worked with The Felix Project throughout the lockdowns, to prepare home-made ready-meals to the homeless, families and NHS staff.
The aftermath of Covid-19 has encouraged a new type of sharing economy, as communities are keen to help feed families for less, especially as unemployment rates rose. OLIO, the app that enables citizens to connect with members to share their surplus food and house hold items, doubled its users to four million during the pandemic. “We’ve gone from seeing just under 300,000 food items listed every month to circa 1.6 million items. Half of all listings added to the OLIO app being requested in less than 30 minutes!” says Tessa Clarke, CEO and co-founder of OLIO.
The U.K.’s war on waste is not over
All spokespeople for OLIO, Too Good To Go and The Felix Project lamented that now is not the time for the country to get complacent. Justin Byam Shaw, founder of The Felix Project, says: “Covid-19 has created a dramatic hunger crisis in the UK, not seen perhaps since the 1930’s.”
Indeed, for one of the world’s wealthiest nations, it is disappointing to find that the U.K.’s food poverty rate is considered to be amongst the highest in Europe where nearly six million adults and 1.7 million children struggled to receive enough food between September 2020 and February 2021.
Despite the progress made over the last 18 months, it stands to reason much work is still be done. WRAP estimates there is the potential to reallocate a further 190,000 tonnes of food from the retail and manufacturing sectors.
Remedying operational challenges will play a critical role in this. For instance, it was reported that Tesco suppliers are being forced to bin nearly 50 tonnes of food each week due to a lorry driver crisis.
Additionally, the repercussions of Brexit are likely to hinder progress to cut food waste. It was predicted in a worst-case scenario that delays at the ports, as a result of stalled political negotiations at the beginning of the year, could create 142,000 tonnes of food, feed and drink over the next six months. This weightage of spoiled goods could cost the industry a staggering £169m according to WRAP.
The future of food redistribution
Why is effective surplus food redistribution integral to creating a sustainable food system? Ultimately, the current misallocation of resources can burden waste management systems, exacerbate food insecurity and place unnecessary stress on agricultural and farming systems.
At a global level, the World Economic Forum estimates that food waste levels are worse than originally thought – with the UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021 stating that up to 17% of global food production may be going to waste, with 61% of this originating from households. To fail to address this would stunt progress to achieve Sustainable Development Goal #2 – Zero Hunger.
Cross-sector collaboration will play a fundamental role in developing an agile system that is able to respond quickly to disruptions in the food supply chain. It is encouraging to note the initiatives led by the Institute of Grocery Distribution and the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap have supported the mitigation of 180,000 tonnes of food waste, valued at £300m.
Elsewhere, food retailers are ramping up their commitments to reducing food waste as Aldi has doubled its charitable redistribution between 2018 and 2019, and the Co-op reported a four-fold increase over the same time period.
For supply chain managers, the implementation of technology at scale with Internet of Things solutions such refrigerators with sensors, will help monitor storage temperatures and stock levels for food more accurately to radically reduce excess waste.
Distilling a greater level of consciousness at a household level is an essential aspect of tackling the war on waste. Behavioural changes related to planning, buying less and choosing local, as well as storing foodstuff correctly should not be underestimated. The value of redistribution capabilities of apps such as OLIO and Too Good To Go, will continue to be realised as millions of their users create a cumulative positive impact. Finally, the normalisation of sharing resources will play a decisive role in effectively allocating surplus food across the nation in the pursuit of zero hunger and the eradication of waste.