Reality bites: how the pandemic changed the way we eat

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If I thought food waste was complicated before Covid-19 emerged, now it blows my mind. I started to research a version of this article in January – those carefree days when people worried about supermarkets overstocking, not the disappearance of pasta and flour. Even then, the picture was hazy, but it was much clearer than it is now.

Until lockdown, most of us were accustomed to any-time, any-place food shopping. Remember when you could eat in all sorts of places? Food was available everywhere, for those with means – and we ate everywhere, too: leaning against a wall with a box of slow-cooked pork from a street-food market; sharing popcorn at the cinema or chips at the pub. They say you’re never more than 6ft from a rat in Britain’s towns and cities, but we were also never much farther from a snack. Then, in an instant, it was gone.

Nationally, we shopped for far more food than we needed: pre-lockdown data showed that 50-70% of all the food wasted in the UK came from our own kitchens – 6.6m tonnes, worth GBP500 per household each year. The figures were absurd: 800,000 apples and 4.4m potatoes thrown in the bin every day; a sixth of all the milk we bought went down the sink.

Not now. With queues to get in, masks and that slow-motion trolley dance we all do to keep the mandated distance, the supermarket is no longer such a tempting place. Confronted with the obvious – that food is finite – we now regard it as a much more precious commodity. Recent research by Hubbub, a UK sustainability charity, says 57% of us value food more than we did pre-coronavirus.

My kids, husband and I fell ill a week before lockdown. In total, we did four weeks in isolation, just as the shelves were emptying. We never went without (thanks to our beloved neighbours) but if you don’t know when you’ll be able to get more yoghurt, you eat all the yoghurt you have. Now, we shop as infrequently as possible, doing big, fortnightly shops as well as ordering from local butchers and greengrocers, mirroring shopping patterns more like my mum’s, nearly 40 years ago. (Much of my current life mimics my childhood: I don’t recall eating a ready-made sandwich until my late teens, meals out were for birthdays and the family ate together.)

Most of us shop less often now and use more of what we buy: new data from Wrap, a charity that aims to reduce waste, shows a 34% reduction in wasted potatoes, bread, chicken and milk at home; it also shows that people are actively trying to waste less – making meals with what they have, batching, using leftovers, planning menus before shopping. Many family meals are now driven by what we need to use up: wrinkled peppers roasted or grilled, the potatoes my children reject at night mixed with mayo and chives next day.

It’s too soon to know if we’re actually throwing less in the bin, as those numbers are arrived at more slowly, from measuring waste in individual households and via council collections. So I decided to run my own, admittedly small-scale, survey. I recruited 20 or so households from all over the UK and asked them to weigh their total food waste (edible and inedible). Before coronavirus, national statistics showed we ate less at home (16.8 meals a week, on average), but threw out about 1.9kg of food waste per person every week – of which more than 60% is thought to be avoidable. According to the results of my mini survey, although we cook and eat almost all 21 weekly meals at home now, we chuck out an average of 1.57kg a week – a significant reduction.

Exactly what goes into the bin remains a mystery – every respondent was at pains to tell me it was almost all bones, shells, peelings and coffee grounds. But if this anecdotal reduction in waste applies more widely, it would represent a more rapid shift in behaviour than anything achieved by more than 10 years of national food waste campaigns. It’s wild extrapolation, but if my findings were replicated countrywide, it would mean the household food wasted annually could be as little as 4.36m tonnes – 2.3m tonnes less than last year. The UK has committed to halving food waste by 2030 – has coronavirus made that a possibility?

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Globally, food waste accounts for about 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions, which is almost equivalent to road transport; if food waste was a country, its emissions would be beaten only by the US and China. “Household waste is half the problem,” Tessa Clarke, who founded Olio, a neighbour-to-neighbour food-sharing app, tells me. “But if you flip that on its head, we can be half the solution. That’s an empowering message: here’s something really simple you could do, starting right now, in your home.”

Clarke co-founded Olio after trying and failing to give away unwanted food before a house move. “Whenever people think about food waste, they think about businesses. That could not be more wrong,” she says. She is frustrated that much of the attention – media and government – in recent years has been on food waste from supermarkets and the grocery sector. “All the focus has gone on 2% of the problem. We have not been looking at the home and at the other end, the 20-30% at the farm gate.”

Lifting the lid on a plate of vegetable waste

Two per cent is still a lot of food, though: at least 300,000 tonnes in retail and wholesale, perhaps more, as most data collected is given voluntarily. Supermarkets and their suppliers divert some unsold food that is about to go out of date, or food that can’t be sold (damaged cereal boxes, squashed blocks of cheese, chocolate Santas in January). They work with charities such as FareShare, which has been redistributing surplus since 1994, and FoodCloud, launched in 2013, which lets shops alert food banks, hostels or breakfast clubs that collect unsold or surplus food.

Even so, only about 6% of supermarket surplus – 17,500 tonnes a year – was, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, redistributed to people. (A further 23,000 tonnes was gleaned from manufacturing by companies such as Rejuce, which makes juice; Rubies in the Rubble, which make sauces and chutneys; and Toast Ale, which turns some of the 24m slices of bread thrown away daily into beer.)

When the hospitality industry shut down, many people assumed farmers and producers could simply sell their food through shops. But hyper-efficient, inflexible supermarket systems are not built to absorb excess food from elsewhere. And if you usually produce 30cm square catering packs of sticky toffee pudding, it is very hard to change all the packaging, let alone set that pudding in front of a retail buyer.

While some companies have switched to supplying local shops, or delivery or takeaway, other producers have found themselves hemmed in by differing standards. Chefs, for example, often care much less about the cosmetic appearance or specific weight of fruit and vegetables than retailers, who require a degree of uniformity. Other produce just can’t be sold in other ways: most fish and chip shops closed during lockdown; now, social distancing means they are serving fewer people. Combined with restaurant closures, this left the UK with about 95,000 tonnes of chipping potatoes in growers’ stores at the end of June, just as the 2020 crop was ready for harvest. Growers will store them as long as possible, but some will end up as animal feed or being sent to anaerobic digestion, to be turned into energy.

We don’t know how much produce is wasted on farms, whether due to wonkiness, gluts or supermarket orders changed at the last minute: Wrap, the waste prevention charity, estimated last year that 3.6m tonnes of edible food is lost on British farms. There is clearly enough – and probably too much – food in the system, but it doesn’t always get to where it’s needed.

Meanwhile, food redistribution charities have ramped up their output in response to accelerating demand. Fareshare usually delivers enough food to make 1m meals a week through its network of charities, but is now delivering enough for 2m. In the first week of lockdown, the charity saw a short-lived crash in its normal supermarket fresh food surpluses, but was almost overwhelmed by catering industry donations – a 1,500% increase on last April.

Misshapen Carrot isolated on white background

Now, Fareshare is helping thousands of charities access long-life, non-surplus products to go in food parcels for newly economically vulnerable people. Iain Linsdell is headteacher at Poplar Street Primary in Audenshaw, in the Greater Manchester area, where, even before coronavirus, an estimated 620,000 people were at risk of going hungry. “Without FareShare, there would be hunger and hardship on a scale that we have probably never experienced,” he says. “Instead of families and kids coming to us, we’re going out to them.”

Another waste-food redistribution charity, City Harvest, has doubled its usual output, using kitchens loaned by Crystal Palace football club, the Savoy hotel, the Mayfair private members’ club Annabel’s and Wimbledon’s All England Lawn Tennis Club to create 1.4m meals since lockdown, in greater London alone. Chef Lauren Everet cooks at the Soup Kitchen on Tottenham Court Road, which is supplied by City Harvest. “We’ve seen the young, 18-21-year-olds, and many pension-age guests. We’ve seen people who obviously haven’t been sleeping rough very long, and some who look as if they’re on the cusp of homelessness. We had 161 people in recently, which was a new record for us, but we fed them all. There is a small percentage of people who are what we call ‘food poor’: they may afford accommodation, but cannot afford bills, transport and food. We’ve given them a food parcel to take home that lasts a week to 10 days.”

The government’s loud support for what these charities do – including GBP5m extra for redistribution, from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – raises an awkward question. The government says it’s fighting food waste, but isn’t it just enabling the existing surplus food to be better dealt with, rather than actively reducing it? Could it even be an advantage for the government to have thousands of tonnes of free food sloshing around, available to feed vulnerable people, rather than providing a more generous social safety net? Almost no legislation exists to either force or enable households, farmers or businesses to waste less food, at present.

Ben Elliot is the government’s food waste champion, an unpaid advisory role. The philanthropist and luxury concierge company co-founder was appointed in December 2018, to “drive forward the government’s plans to cut food waste” – which must be tricky, given that UK food policy is managed by an extraordinary 16 different government departments. Will there be more legislation in future, I ask him? He tells me he will “push to legislate for real change that will ensure good food does not go unused”, but it’s hard to imagine when that might happen. The possibility of compulsory food waste reporting in the food industry was raised by Elliot in mid-2019 – but the consultations have not been completed. Following on from Elliot’s response to my questions, a Defra spokesman emailed to emphasise the department’s commitment to “addressing the underlying causes of food waste”.

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Tristram Stuart has been a food waste campaigner for more than a decade and is currently collecting tonnes of 1kg catering packs of everything from hummus to tofu direct from producers, for the food waste charities Feedback and Food for All, which is cooking 5,000 meals a day. But why should on-the-brink hummus suppliers be filling the gap?

“Redistribution should never be regarded as the solution to poverty or hunger, and it certainly isn’t a viable solution to food waste,” Stuart says. “At best, redistribution organisations are sticking plasters with big notices on them saying, ‘We need to restructure the food system.'”

Fareshare’s big hope is that it is allowed to extend a pilot scheme with government funding, and fast. At the moment, unknowable quantities of farm waste are repurposed as animal feed, composted or sent to anaerobic digestion (for which tax incentives are available – but not for getting the same food to a school breakfast club). A small amount is collected by gleaning charities such as Waste Knot, which sends volunteers to rescue produce from farmers such as Peter Ascroft, who grows beetroot and cauliflower on 400 acres in Lancashire. “We supply beetroot to the catering industry,” he says. “We had a good crop this year. We’ve probably lost 100 tonnes of beetroot [in sales], which to us is significant.” Some of his unusual candied and yellow beetroot was gleaned, but most was simply ploughed back into the soil, representing a heartbreaking return on his work. Chefs love speciality beetroot, but it is of little interest to most supermarkets.

Fareshare’s pilot saved 3,000 tonnes of farm produce, and more money from Defra would let it pay farmers to harvest, process, package and transport surplus crops. “This year looks set to be a once-in-a-generation growing season,” says Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of Fareshare. “Inevitably there will be more surplus. For some, healthy fruit and veg is an unaffordable luxury – funding would help get it on to the plates of vulnerable people.”

The lack of migrant labour this year to pick strawberries and cut broccoli may tangle things still further. Defra has set up a website and campaign, Pick For Britain, to recruit British workers, but more than half the jobs available remain unfilled and farmers worry that potential pickers will slowly return to their usual work and won’t want to commit to the length of time needed. As Ascroft says: “Are you going to come and cut cauliflowers all day, in Lancashire, in the rain?”

It’s not just veg. From 6 to 20 April, a million litres of milk had to be poured away, says Peter Alvis, chairman of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers. The closure of restaurants and coffee shops meant milk suddenly had nowhere to go. In the following weeks, dairy farmers and processors managed to reroute most of it into shops, or process it as milk powder or fats. “I don’t believe we are currently throwing milk away,” Alvis says. “But farmers have taken a hit by lowering production.”

Food waste apps are trying to prevent specialist dairy losses – Too Good To Go is helping the Cornish Cheese Company sell off 10 tonnes of surplus Cornish blue cheese in consumer-friendly 1kg pieces – and Alvis is pushing Defra to help sheep, goat and buffalo milk producers, the people who make goat curd or burrata for chefs. “They are in a much worse position because their markets have disappeared,” he says. “Some are trying to diversify, some are seeing 100% income losses.”

Could this lead to mass livestock culls, of the sort already seen in the US? “The government is working to avoid that,” Alvis says. “It depends on what support we can get to them.”

Why not just put all the excess in warehouse-sized freezers? “Cold storage in the UK is full,” says Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation industry body. “No one is taking on new business. The peak was in April when we had things backing up like frozen vegetables and meat, especially the expensive cuts that normally go into restaurants. Fast-food restaurants opening up drive-throughs means frozen meat and potatoes will begin to move, but we don’t know what demand will be like because you can’t serve as many people.”

Set of five ugly vegetables: potato, tomato, cucumber and radish laid out in row on white wooden background

Lack of storage is why Mim Skinner is finding high-end, long-life, in-date salami in the surplus donated to her food redistribution charity REfUSE, in Chester-le-Street. Usually, she runs a cafe and catering business using surplus food donated by businesses, and the charity is the regional food redistributor for a big online supermarket. “Our staples are usually milk and bread. Now we are getting high levels of luxury products – manchego, mozzarella and parmesan – and only a few tins of beans. This morning we got 300 pheasant breasts meant for restaurants,” she says.

In the last few weeks, Skinner has taken in 8kg of novello olives, 23 wheels of brie and 30kg of charcuterie, much of which would normally have gone to pizza restaurants. Just after Easter she rehomed 2,000 chocolate eggs, some of which were distributed whole, others melted for cooking. There’s no sign of things slowing, either: “We’ve had an email from a restaurant that has gone under, offering the contents of two cold rooms – all the frozen meat, fish, chips and wrap breads.”

REfUSE makes 200 hot meals a day for people who can’t afford fuel to cook with or who are living in hostels with few facilities, as well as delivering around 320 food parcels a week. The need is huge, she says. “It’s been really hard to see. We arrive at a house with a delivery and a little kid will run out shouting, ‘Mummy! Food!'”

How has the pandemic changed our relationship with food? Christian Reynolds, a lecturer in food policy at City, University of London, has just carried out a study of university students’ eating habits nationwide, and describes the findings as stark. “More than we were expecting had food security issues and, among those, people were eating more ultra-processed foods because they were comfort eating, or that was the only food they could find in the first weeks of lockdown. There were other groups who were cooking brilliantly and reducing food waste.”

Does Reynolds think we are on the cusp of a cultural shift? “That’s such a tough one,” he says. “Covid-19 is a massive social disruption. Previous generations have gone through similar things – rationing, for instance, completely changed the British relationship with food, cooking and diet. We each have our own story taking place in our own households, and the end results will very much depend on our situations before and during lockdown.”

But for Reynolds, the bigger picture is – just about – hopeful. “We need to halve household waste food waste by 2030. The UK is on that trajectory and there are lots of tools out there to help.”

As for the restaurant industry, the future is uncertain. On the one hand, many a Michelin-starred dining room is already set up for social distancing, with tables placed well apart. On the other, might dropping hundreds of pounds on a single meal feel horribly decadent even to those few for whom it’s possible? Even as social distancing rules are relaxed, how many of us will feel ready to brave a dining room? How joyful will a meal out be if we are served by masked and gloved staff? How hard will stocking and staffing restaurants be, as owners navigate uncertain demand? Ordering via an app, once a novelty, will surely become normal (and may help the industry bounce back: apparently we order more when no one’s looking, and are more likely to order things we can’t pronounce).

Will we see short, economical menus, or will everyone dive straight back in? Cornwall-based Michelin-starred chef Paul Ainsworth announced he had taken more 3,000 bookings in the two days after the prime minister announced restaurants were set to reopen. But while many aim to open in the next few days, others have chosen to wait; some have said they won’t reopen at all.

Tim Siadatan is a chef who co-owns two Italian restaurants, Trullo and Padella, in north London. “I can’t wait to go and sit outside my favourite restaurant and have a long lunch – the moment I can, I’m going,” he says, smiling. “But there will be loads of people who don’t. People will have limited funds and others will be concerned about losing their jobs.”

He, too, is hopeful, though. “Supermarkets did an amazing job in the early days, but as lockdown moved on and wholesalers and farmers started to figure out e-commerce, a lot of people realised we don’t need to rely on supermarkets for everything. In the UK we are blessed to be able to get things delivered to the door and that’s gone up tenfold, if not more. And those suppliers have such tight margins that they just don’t waste anything.”

The 4m tonne question is: will these changes stick now the worst of lockdown is over? Will my husband carry on making bread when he’s back at work full time? Will my fridge still be full of tubs of leftover tuna and cheese rinds to melt into sauces? Will we remember the lessons of these strange days, or fall back on old habits at the first opportunity? For me, this has been a profound and, I suspect, life-changing experience. But ask me in a year – when I hope you’ll find me in a crowd, leaning on a wall, eating slow-cooked pork out of a box.

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