The woman leading the war on food waste
With our modern, hectic and consumer-orientated lifestyles, it’s easy to think that the odd food item we may have bought but never eaten is insignificant. However, once you start adding up all the edible items purchased and left to perish over the year, a different picture starts to emerge.
The average household in the UK will lose £470 this year in wasted food. The figure rises to £700 if it’s a family with children.
Food waste isn’t unique to the UK; it’s a global problem. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations estimates that worldwide, one third of all human food production goes to waste each year. That’s a staggering 1.3 billion tons of edible food that ends up in the bin annually, at a cost of £770 billion.
But there’s hope. In their unassuming corner of Scandinavia, the Danes have launched more initiatives—from awareness campaigns to government policy and legislation—to tackle the problem than anywhere else in Europe or indeed the world.
In Denmark there are “passed best-by date” restaurants, “zero waste” kitchens, supermarkets and pressure groups, and even mobile apps that locate leftover buffet meals going cheap. Denmark reduced its national figure of food waste by 25 per cent in the last five years—and it’s still striving to do more.
The woman who’s widely credited with instigating the Danish national food-waste revolution is 36-year-old former graphic designer Selina Juul.
Originating from Moscow and arriving in Denmark at age 13, she remembers, “After coming from Russia where I’d experienced food shortages, empty grocery stores and the general belief that food was gold, I was shocked to see everything they had here in the food stores. “But then I remember being even more shocked by how much people simply threw away.”
In 2008, still passionate about the issue, she founded the consumer movement “Stop Spild Af Mad” (“Stop Wasting Food”), which has gone on to be Denmark’s largest consumer organisation in the fight against food waste.
The movement has 60,000 followers on Facebook and Selina has published an award-winning and sold-out cookbook based on using up food surplus. She’s lobbied for the issue at both the EU and UN and delivered several thought-provoking TED talks.
Today she’s visiting Le Sommelier, an upmarket restaurant in Copenhagen that’s a stone’s throw from the Danish Royal Palace. Head chef Christian Mhaquard, 29, is on hand to explain the restaurant’s implementation of a zero-food-waste kitchen. “It’s a voluntary scheme we’ve been involved in for the last two years”, he says. “If food isn’t eaten, we make stock. If we can’t use it in stock, then it goes to the biotrash.”
And here’s the clever twist—the food waste is again separated: oils are used to make biodiesel, and the rest produces biogas, which is used to run the trucks picking up the waste. Spare capacity is sold on, and what’s left from the biogas production becomes fertiliser—and can be used again to grow more food. “Nothing goes to waste”, Christian smiles.
Sipping a simple mineral water, Selina recounts the small beginnings of her own campaign. “Our first success came with the supermarket chain Rema 1000. We’d been arguing to stop discounts of three-for-two, as invariably people bought more than they needed and the food just ended up rotting in the refrigerator.” Rema came on board, replacing all their quantity discounts with single-item discounts. Other retail chains in Denmark soon followed suit, and most now operate with food waste-prevention strategies and goals.
"It’s our policy to sell goods we receive as cheaply as possible to our customers"
Best-before dates on produce are also a major issue. “Best before doesn’t mean toxic—afterwards you can use your hands, eyes and nose to check if food is still OK. It’s that simple,” says Selina.
Bassel slips into his story. “It’s our policy to sell goods we receive as cheaply as possible to our customers. So when I got a call from a farmer saying he had some fresh carrots and did we want them, I just said, ‘Yes, of course.’ ” It was only later that day that Bassel’s problem started. “I knew something was up when I saw the artic lorry pulling up outside the shop and, before we could do anything, it unloaded ten tons of carrots into our laps. We now had all this fresh produce, and had to somehow make sure that at least it got eaten. We’re here to use wasted food—not throw it away again!
A plan of action of military precision was rolled into place. Volunteer staff were placed outside the shop, fully armed with bags of carrots ready to give for free to anyone passing. “We even got on public buses in order to give out bags for free to all the passengers including the drivers.” The herculean task of “out farming” all the vegetables to grateful citizens of Copenhagen was finally achieved. But with rolling eyes Bassel recalls, “I got to the point where I never wanted to see another carrot again.”
With agreements with ten supermarkets in Copenhagen ensuring regular collections of unwanted produce, Wefood’s peculiarity is that the shop never knows what it will be stocking next. Not that customers seem to mind—Morten Kisbaek, a logistics supervisor who’s leaving the shop with a packet of biscuits, says, “I live nearby and it’s convenient to just drop in and see what they have.”
Nearly 200 miles west of Copenhagen lies the picturesque Danish town of Horsens (population 51,000). This understated place is home to a culinary secret: The Visionary Kitchen, a weekly venue for the experience of cooking only with food past its best-before date. It’s the brainchild of Jan Martin Ahlers, a former student of the university in town. Since then, looking after the project has been passed on to new undergraduates each academic year.
Tonight, a three-course meal is on the menu: leek soup; roasted potatoes with rosemary and caramelised apples, plus an accompanying salad and steamed vegetables; pears for pudding. Eliza-Ioana Cojocaru, attending this evening’s meal, explains her reasons, “We’re saving food for ecological reasons. It’s also a social activity—and you learn to cook!”
Social benefits as a side effect of saving unwanted food are visible on the other side of town, where the Bo Welfare project collects and distributes unwanted or out-of-date food as a social programme. Three times a week, they set out their produce. All their customers need to do is to fill their reusable bags with good food. The “one price fits all” policy means each bag goes at 20 kroner (approximately £2.50)—about a fifth of its normal price.
Volunteer Lise Worm says, “The first time that we opened up our doors, a woman just came up to me to show me what she’d managed to buy here, and honestly, she had tears in her eyes. It makes that much of a difference to people.”
Despite these impressive savings—both in terms of food and money—there’s still a lot of work to be done to reverse the world’s overconsumption. As Selina Juul says, “When an estimated billion humans on the planet are starving or undernourished, we really should be making food waste a global shame.”
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