They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but today 5,000 people, including me, have had exactly that. The event in Trafalgar Square was the brainchild of Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. The aim of the event is to draw attention to the astonishing amount of food that gets thrown away every year.
Partly, the idea is to encourage consumers not to overbuy and to use up food at home before it goes off and also, to draw attention to the shocking quantities of food that get wasted higher up the food chain. UK supermarkets have much more stringent cosmetic standards than our European counterparts, meaning that tonnes of perfectly good fruit and vegetables are sent to landfill simply because they are the wrong shape.
A delicious vegetable curry was prepared by Hare Krishna volunteers, made entirely from ingredients that would have otherwise ended up in landfill. In addition to the main meal, punters could help themselves to freshly pressed apple juice made from misshapen apples deemed unfit for our supermarket shelves. Fruit, including uneven bananas and pineapples were being given away and you could help bag up wonky carrots which will later be distributed to food charities. As well as the vegan curry, there were also tongue sandwiches, and seared ox cheek on offer. The queue for these was considerably shorter than for the veggie option, and, to my amusement a volunteer was checking with people that they knew what they were queuing for.
The whole thing was impressively well organised, with fast moving queues and plenty of volunteers making sure everyone got the message as well as the free food. I spoke to a couple of staff from FareShare, who explained to me how they manage to feed over 35,000 people daily through redistributing food waste. The examples of food thrown away by the industry were very surprising – even rice and pasta with more than a year left before the use-by date get chucked simply because of misprints on the packaging. FoodCycle volunteers handed me recipe cards for great meals you can make with vegetables which are past their best, and a woman from Love Food Hate Waste told me that the average family throws away £50 worth of perfectly good food every month.
Everyone attending was asked to sign the Feed the 5,000 pledge, committing to buying only the food they need, and eating the food they buy. For me, the most striking statistic of the day was that if we all stopped throwing away food that could have been eaten it would have the same carbon impact as taking 20% of cars off the road. I don’t know why this was the figure that had most salience for me – maybe because the carbon impact of car use seems more obvious to me than that of wasted food.
Not wasting food seems like such a simple and obvious thing we can all do, and really shouldn’t be that difficult. I guess like many of these sorts of challenges, it’s about subtle shifts and changes of habit, maybe a bit more in the way of planning before we go shopping, and more flexibility to use up what we’ve got once we’ve bought it. So, before the end of the day, I’d better eat the apple that’s been sitting in my desk drawer all week…