The air outside is crisp, but there’s a hint of the heat that’s about to hit later that day. The early morning sunrays add spotlights on the trees. As Melbourne wakes, those sunrays shed light on food wastage and the surprising face of hunger in Australia today, with 1 in 8 Australians in need of a Food Bank or food assistance each day. I’m walking to the warehouse of Second Bite, a food-rescue re-distribution charity in Melbourne (and Sydney). 7am hits and I’m armed with my oversized florescent yellow vest, fastening my seatbelt I ride along with one of their drivers.
In a way it’s very Robin Hood – you take unwanted or excess food from large chain grocery stores, restaurants, cafes and businesses and give to those unsure about where their next meal is coming from. Throughout my 2-days of volunteering with Second Bite and OzHarvest you see how disconnected we really are with our food.
The way we eat is changing our planet. It’s only when you see thousands of kilos of delicious food being thrown out, posed for landfill and labeled as ‘waste’ or ‘ugly’, does it hit home – most of it, unnecessarily. Isn’t it ironic that we use that word to describe one of the most necessary gifts from our planet?
How food-rescue works: the drivers use their respective app to pick up from or deliver to, a scheduled set of stakeholders. They weigh and log how much food is dropped off or collected from each stop. Early into the pickups you see ‘excess’ or ‘waste’ food trends – soft avocadoes, bananas (split skins or brown spots, but not necessarily over-ripe or bruised), bell peppers, slightly squished tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, spinach, wilted salad greens, bread, potatoes, incomplete packs (meaning 1 item may be missing, so they legally can’t sell it), and moldy. The list went on. At times, lonely semi-sorted (by the grocery store staff) produce sat in the corner of the warehouses. Much of this was not good enough for people to eat, especially those in need, but it was apparently ready for Second Bite to collect. Whether it was lack of training or regard (or both), or just the natural rotting process taking place, I don’t know.
I’m not going to lie; it was a really uncomfortable experience on both an emotional and mental level. As a cook my job is to feed people, it’s engraved on my knife, but after this experience you feel helpless at the same time. Everyone should have access to food everyday, which we were helping with. But, there just isn’t enough of it getting to the massive number of people needing food security. And even if we reduced our food waste, we may not have enough to feed everyone.
In contrast, the OzHarvest’s cheery bright yellow van helped bring a little ray of sunshine to the subject. With just 3 donated vans in Melbourne, the food donations were all top quality, which I needed to see. They’ve recently expanded to 29 vans cross the country. Started 2 ½ years ago in Melbourne, but 12 years ago in Sydney, their approach is a little different. OzHarvest’s volunteer or full-time drivers make their way around the city working on the same or similar schedule each week. With 30-something stops a day, 2/3 were pickups from coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, local farmers and airlines, and 1/3 were drop offs to charities, church groups, soup kitchens and generally those in need.
Restaurants and cafes donated the previous day’s cooked meat, vac packed sauces and dips, and even bacon and sausages from 4-5* hotel breakfast buffets. A juice company couldn’t donate produce, but did give plastic containers that made it easier for restaurants to donate items without financial strain.
Then came two major airlines. From the first airline alone we collected a massive 20 crates of single serving snack items with up to a 6-month expiration date on them. These ranged from high-quality chocolate, olives, pretzels, banana bread, biscuits and more. The second airline were equally as enthusiastic for these ‘leftovers’ from flights to be donated to people in need. For airlines, it seemed like it was easier to re-load planes with a new batch of items, then sort through and re-use these unopened packaged goods.
Even though this gift of food is hard to measure, I saw how a meal could make a difference to someone’s life. With every drop off, we were greeted by a big smile – the team at OzHarvest has built a strong bond with their suppliers and charities. We moved our haul into pantries of food banks, church groups and soup kitchens. The pantry at North Point Church Group was worryingly barren. ‘We fixed that problem’, said Lyndon. Bright-eyed volunteers were ecstatic when we opened the doors to our van full of goodies; it was just what they hoped for. A volunteer at a soup kitchen even gifted us a loaf of banana bread to say ‘thank you’. The impact that OzHarvest was making was definitely felt.
In all honesty, such ‘developed’ countries, shouldn’t struggle to feed everyone. The truth is that small-scale farming won’t solve this problem. If you work on a farm or grow your own food, witness the process, or even talk to the farmer, maybe we wouldn’t be so fast to throw things out. It is easier to order lower quantities based on demand by supporting local, than ordering produce from God knows where. Maybe if we get a better hold on supply and demand, plus set a buffer for less food waste, we can help reduce unused food being binned, and we can lower fresh food prices because the figure for ‘wastage’ is lower.
David Chang recently said ‘cooking from scraps makes you a better cook’ [MAD SYD, April 3]. Restaurants have to start thinking of new ways of utilizing scraps, whey, pulp and other ‘by-products’, in day-to-day preparations and adopting ‘zero waste’ policies. I also think food agencies (like Interior Heath) need to be a bit more forgiving with concepts like lacto-fermentation (using whey to ferment and pickle), nose-to-tail butchery and anything relating to dairy to help be more sustainable. At the end of the day, our job is to feed people, not harm them. [Kelowna: stay tuned for a ‘Wasted’ themed pop up].
Without these two food rescue charities all this perfectly good, delicious ‘waste’ would have gone straight to landfill. And the plastic bags are clogging up everything. It doesn’t matter how the produce is certified organic or hand-shaped if it’s not going to be eaten. No crop is ever guaranteed and it seems like such a waste of resources (time, money, water, and love) for it to go to waste. Even though there is still a long way to go, we need to keep on pushing, questioning, and changing our perceptions as consumers. Food shouldn’t be something we just buy because there are people whose lives depend on it. Is eating a potato that was once considered ‘ugly’ in the eyes of one person so different?
To donate to OzHarvest, click here