Tristram Stuart on the Zero Food Waste Future

by Chris Hunt

Published: 7/10/17, Last updated: 5/24/19

On May 10, GRACE proudly joined a coalition of nonprofits, government agencies and civil institutions to host Feeding the 5000 NYC, an event created to raise public awareness about food waste and to highlight the many solutions to the problem. To celebrate the project, we’ve interviewed several leaders in the food waste reduction movement to share their perspectives on the emerging issue.

Every movement has its visionaries, the forward-thinking leaders who push passionately and relentlessly for progress, rejecting the intolerable status quo and refusing to accept excuses for inaction. For the past decade, Tristram Stuart has served this role for the food waste movement, tenaciously emphasizing the urgency of the issue and inspiring a diversity of stakeholders to take action.

In 2009, Tristram literally wrote the book on food waste (Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Waste Scandal), which is widely credited with elevating the issue to international attention. In the same year, he founded Feedback, a nonprofit dedicated to food waste reduction, and launched the Feeding the 5000 campaign, which continues to publicize the problem and promote solutions throughout the world.

We were able to catch Tristram in a rare moment of downtime, and are happy to present this interview with the renowned food waste advocate, activist and feeder of many, many thousands.

The Feeding the 5000 campaign has had remarkable success at raising public awareness about food waste throughout the world. What makes these events so effective? What seems to resonate most with the audience?

The first Feeding the 5000, in London in 2009, was meant to be a one-off event. But it created new, powerful coalitions with concrete actions to fight food waste, and so led me to set up Feedback with Feeding the 5000 as our flagship campaign. We’d brought together environmentalists, chefs and anti-hunger organizations in a totally new way, and linked them with supermarkets and restaurants that had surplus. It was a success because these groups, who had not worked together before, realized they were fighting for many of the same goals. Feeding the 5000 has now been replicated in over 30 major cities in every continent except Antarctica.

The events are effective because they demonstrate how simple the solution to a complex problem is – we need to eat the food we have. They are also a lot of fun, and free, and the scale of the events attract media attention that further raises awareness of the delicious solutions to food waste.

How did you get involved in the food waste issue?

At 15 years old, I began rearing pigs which I fed in the most traditional and environmentally friendly way: scraps from the school canteen, stale bread from the bakery, potatoes that were the wrong shape or size for supermarkets from a local farmer. My pigs turned that food waste into delicious pork which I sold for pocket money. But I noticed that most of the food I was giving my pigs was fit for human consumption, and I knew I was barely scratching the surface of the food waste problem.

Many countries have made major strides in reducing food waste; what’s being done well, and what are the biggest takeaways for the US?

On a per-capita basis, the US has very high levels of food waste — 40 percent compared to a global average of 30 percent — yet 1 in 4 Americans say they struggle to pay for food. The reasons are complex, from cosmetic standards dictated by supermarkets, to excessive portion sizes by restaurants, to overly cautious date labels that confuse consumers.

The US has some good initiatives. It uses the tax code and liability protections to incentivize charitable food redistribution. There are groups like the Society of St. Andrew who are doing inspirational work gleaning produce from farms with excess. There are amazing examples of farms collaborating with catering operations to feed waste to livestock (in states where it is not illegal). For example, Pinter Farms in New Jersey collects food waste from Rutgers University’s dining halls. Rutgers has the third largest student dining operation in the country so that’s a lot of food that would otherwise be wasted (plus Rutgers saves over $100,000/year in hauling costs through the partnership).

There are also lessons to learn from around the world. Belgium and France have passed laws banning supermarkets from throwing away or destroying food, forcing them to donate it for redistribution. In the UK, the Groceries Code Adjudicator oversees the relationship between supermarkets and their suppliers to ensure they are treated lawfully and fairly, and campaigning by Feedback amongst others is forcing supermarkets to change their cosmetic standards for fruit and veg. Japan and South Korea centralize the heating and treating of food waste for livestock to increase the system’s efficiency and safety. As a result, they make fantastic use of food waste and have less need to grow or import grains for animal feed. More grains are grown for livestock than for humans — it’s high time to start using food waste to feed livestock that can eat it, especially pigs, to reduce the crushing demand for grain.

But there is still a lot that needs to be done globally to change our broken food system.

What’s the best way for people to make a difference?

The simplest answer is to buy only what we need, and eat everything we buy. Be inventive with ingredients in the fridge and use scraps for delicious stews, soups and/or salads. And question ‘best before’ dates — they are often just the food manufacturers’ best guess at a product’s peak quality and rarely relate to safety.

We also have significant power as consumers. Sign our pledge asking retailers and food manufacturers to adopt a menu of steps to “take food waste off the menu.” We’re calling for transparent reporting of food waste across supermarkets’ supply chains, supporting ongoing efforts to get supermarkets to sell more ugly fruit and veg, and calling on supermarkets and food manufacturers to simplify the wide array of confusing date labels that cause people to needlessly throw away food.

What role should government play in addressing food waste? Do you have any policy recommendations?

We can solve the global food-waste scandal without governments, but intervention from governments can be very helpful. In America, the Good Samaritan Act protects companies if they donate food in good faith, and that gives them more confidence to give away their food and not get sued. The government can also lead the way in giving guidance on date labels to make them less confusing for customers.

However, often the solution is deregulation, not more regulation. The European Union relaxing the laws on cosmetic standards was progressive. The European farm subsidy shifting away from subsidizing overproduction, in the way that the US farm subsidy program has not — these were progressive, deregulatory measures that reduced food waste. And, of course, allowing (while still regulating) feeding food waste to livestock would be another deregulatory measure to reduce food waste.

Do you have a personal favorite food waste reduction technique? 

Eating it. I’m particularly partial to food that would otherwise be wasted — from nose to tail eating to harvesting fruit from neighbors’ trees to retrieving perfectly nutritious and delicious food from supermarkets’ dumpsters.

What’s most exciting to you in the food waste arena? Are there any compelling innovations? Any particularly inspiring food waste solutions?

Feedback manages the Food Surplus Entrepreneurs Network which supports amazing innovations across the food surplus arena, from lean-management apps that help caterers measure and reduce waste to jams and fruit leathers made from gleaned fruits and vegetables. My latest venture, Toast Ale, makes delicious beer from bread that would have otherwise been thrown away.

What’s most needed in the food waste reduction space?

We need constant pressure from consumers to take back control of our food system. We need consumer pressure on supermarkets for transparency about food waste both in-store and in their supply chains. We need consumer pressure on supermarkets and food manufacturers to treat their suppliers fairly, and make sure that they are not imposing unnecessarily strict cosmetic standards on produce or order cancellations that cause food waste on their suppliers’ farms. Above all, we need creativity and passion and love for food from everyone in the food supply chain, from food manufacturers to retailers to customers.

Stay up to date with the latest from Tristram and Feedback!

Facebook: Feedback

Twitter: @TristramStuart, @feedbackorg

Instagram: @feedbackorg

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