My visit to FareShare – and why you should think twice before you buy too much and cook too much this Christmas
December 23, 2019

[If you want to read more about my visit to FareShare, check out my piece in The i newspaper here.]

In the world of food blogging – in fact, in the world full stop – there’s a lot of excess that gets chucked around. We (and I very much include myself in this, perhaps with more than a hint of shame) champion gluttony, bragging about food-filled feasts, wearing greed like some kind of badge of honour, and pretending we’re embarrassed by our binge-drinking yet somehow doing it on a loop like some kind of real-life gif.

It all seems like good fun, and it looks good on Instagram, right? But what happens when the reality of this world of extremes is shown to us in all its stark, slightly distateful, shameful reality? For starters, it induces a whole lot of feelings, from self-justification and indignation through to embarrasment and shame and everything in between.

But what it also does is force you to think. And maybe plan a few changes. It certainly has for me, and maybe this blog post will for you.

We’ve all heard about food waste. A lot of it happens right in front of us in our own kitchens. A few figures from waste charity Wrap might help you visualise exactly how bad things are. According to them:-

• Enough potatoes are thrown away in UK homes each year to make roast potatoes on Christmas Day for the whole country for 48 years.
• The amount of poultry thrown away each year in UK homes is enough to make 800 million Boxing Day curries.
• The amount of carrots thrown away in UK homes each year weighs the same as a herd of 636,000 reindeer. Or equally, if Rudolf lined up just four days’ worth of the carrots thrown away in UK homes, he would build a path long enough to guide his flight from London to Lapland.
• Each year, UK households throw away enough gravy to accompany Christmas dinner for the whole country.

That’s just what we throw away at home. But waste happens elsewhere along the supply chain. Some food that’s produced for supermarkets never gets there, either left with the producers or suppliers for various reasons, or only getting as far as large distribution centres before it’s decided that it won’t actually hit the shelves.

At the start of the month I was invited to visit FareShare – a charity that redistributes “good to eat” surplus food. They’ve got 25 warehouses across the country and, put simply, they get surplus food donated, from supermarkets, suppliers, producers, and all sorts of other places. They sort it, check its quality, then redistribute it to charities and groups that work to provide food for people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily get it.

Picture courtesy of FareShare

It’s not a food bank, it’s not taking rotting food and giving it to homeless people. It’s a longstanding, efficient operation, that moves food that is in perfectly good condition from places where it’s no longer needed and into places that very much do need it. The whole thing sounds simple, and you may well shrug your shoulders. But I suppose having seen a FareShare warehouse in action, and having got my head around some of the figures, I find it staggering, inspiring and concerning all in one go.

According to FareShare, it’s estimated that the amount of food wasted each year is equivalent to four million Christmas dinners, with more than two million tonnes of “good to eat” surplus food going to waste within the supply chain each year. Last year in December FareShare gathered enough food to provide 2.1 million meals for people in need. That’s the kind of scale this works on.

When you walk into a FareShare warehouse (I visited South Wigston in Leicestershire) it’s staggering. Mounds of onions, boxes of tomatoes, all in perfect nick. Stacks of yule logs, tins, packets. Walk in fridges piled high with rib-eye steaks and joints of meat, others with gallons of cream and tonnes of cheese in them. All perfectly healthy, all good quality, with maybe the only issue that they’re getting a bit close to their use by date.

Teams made mainly up of volunteers sort through them with the efficiency that you imagine McDonald’s might one day have when you’re queuing up for a hangover-cure Sausage and Egg McMuffin. They need to be efficient, because not only does the food have to reach its destination before it hits that use-by date (otherwise legally it can’t be donated) but because it really is needed.

The groups that get food from FareShare range from Food Banks to community groups, drug rehabilitation charities, women’s refuges, school clubs and more. They pay a minimum fee that helps cover the running costs of FareShare, yet is still far cheaper than if they bought the food conventionally.

I meet volunteers like warehouse and logistics manager Ruth Newbold, who pretty much lives and breathes her work at FareShare. Another volunteer has been helping four days a week, every week, for years with no sign of quitting any time soon. These people are passionate about what they do, and when you think about the difference they make, it’s easy to see why.

I go round the corner to the Leicester South Salvation Army, which receives food from FareShare. The donations have made a massive difference – the menu at their community cafe now changes weekly depending on what they get.

Their food bank is also well stocked, while they’ve also been able to set up a community market that allows people who can’t afford to shop for food and who haven’t been referred to a food bank to show up and take fresh produce, paying only what they can afford, even if that is nothing. For one visitor at his wit’s end as he faced the reality that he couldn’t afford to feed his four children, that food market was literally the difference between life and death.

So there you have it. While I’m rabbiting on about how much I’ve eaten, how much I’ve drunk, and how I might rein things in when I can be bothered, in plenty of places across the country there are people worrying about excess in a whole different way – as they try to move it to the people with nothing.

I know, it all sounds very dramatic and you don’t come to this blog for this. You come for tasting menus, big fat burgers, lists of the best meals to have and all that jazz. But this stuff is important, and while I’m certainly not perfect when it comes to remembering how lucky I am to have the gluttonous life I lead, I think it’s worth sparing a thought for this kind of stuff.

Picture courtesy of FareShare

Yes, I know. You and I aren’t wholeheartedly responsible for the whole food supply chain’s waste problem. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore it, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can do – no matter how small they may seem. So I’ve grabbed a few tips from WRAP in case you’re planning on trying to do your bit at home this Christmas.

  • Don’t buy food just because ‘it’s a tradition’. If you know nobody in your household is going to eat sprouts (though I don’t know why, because cooked right they’re great) and they’re only going to end up in the bin then just don’t buy them.
  • Check the ‘use by’ dates – we all get a bit over-zealous when we’re doing the Christmas shop, but keep an eye on the dates on things and if you’re not going to get through them just whack them in the freezer so you can have them another time.
  • Don’t go overboard – if you’ve got three people coming for Christmas Dinner, do you really need to cook enough for ten? Probably not…
  • Let people serve themselves – that way it’s easier to deal with the leftovers.
  • Don’t throw leftovers away – find a recipe to turn them into something amazing. Like bubble and squeak! You can find plenty on the Love Food Hate Waste website here.

For more information visit FareShare or WRAP.