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Foodservice takes redistribution to the next level

New data shows a surge in the volume of surplus food being diverted from waste in recent years but Wrap insists there are more opportunities for businesses to go at. Nick Hughes reports.

The latest statistics on food redistribution are in and they show a significant increase in the volume of surplus food being sent by businesses to charity or sold via third parties at a discount.

Research published in September by Wrap showed that around 170,000 tonnes of surplus food was received by redistribution organisations in 2022, equivalent to 400 million meals with a value of more than £590m. That represents a 27% increase on a comparable basis from 2021 with more food redistributed across all storage types (ambient, chilled and frozen) and sectors (farm, retail, manufacturing, and hospitality and foodservice).

The hospitality and foodservice sector (HaFS) has historically been slower than retail and manufacturing to seize the opportunity to redistribute surplus food that would otherwise end up as waste, but businesses have been making up for lost time ever since the covid-19 pandemic forced them to find outlets for food that could no longer be sold due to government restrictions. Data from the seven redistribution organisations reporting to Wrap for each year since 2019 shows an increase in surplus food redistribution by HaFS businesses of over 600% between 2019 and 2022, by far the fastest rate of growth of any industry sector during that period. In total, the HaFS sector redistributed 16,542 tonnes in 2022 representing 10% of the industry-wide total.

Wrap insists that preventing food waste at source should always be the priority for businesses, yet it argues that for the remaining surplus there remains a huge untapped opportunity for businesses to go further in scaling up redistribution networks. 

“While great strides have been made, Wrap urges the food sector to do more,” says Catherine David, director of behaviour change and business programmes at the charity. “Businesses working in collaboration with the redistribution industry now need to find solutions to other issues which prevent access to harder to reach surplus.”

Barriers persist

Issues specific to the HaFS sector were set out in Footprint’s latest research report – Food Waste 2023: Reduce, redistribute and recycle. They include concerns over food safety and allergens, the resource implications associated with redistribution and a fear of unintended consequences such as customers holding off buying food until it has reduced in price.

Yet the report also found such barriers can increasingly be overcome. Saasha Celestial-One, co-founder of Olio, noted how the food sharing app’s food safety management systems have been rigorously designed and verified by local authorities to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements. Hot food is temperature probed at the time of collection to ensure it’s over 63 degrees and must be collected by the final consumer within two hours or be cooled down within that time period to a safe temperature. All Olio volunteers have to go through “robust” food safety training. “We can’t exist if we don’t take food safety seriously,” said Celestial-One.

She argued too that while the additional human resource required to package and label surplus food does exist as a barrier Olio has tried to make the process as effortless as possible, adding that “there is effort involved in food disposal as well”.

Chicken breakthrough

HaFS businesses, working in partnership with redistribution organisations, are increasingly showing what’s possible when creative thinking is applied to problems associated with redistributing surplus food. KFC UK & Ireland has been working with charity FareShare to tackle the surplus generated in its kitchens. Chicken that is freshly prepared and fried onsite can only be held in hot holding cabinets for a limited time. Prior to the FareShare partnership the chicken would have ended up in the food waste bin but it is now packaged into a bespoke donation bag that has been specifically designed to allow the chicken to be frozen for up to 60 days before being reheated and eaten. The donation bag contains all the information, including allergens, storage instructions, cooking instructions and ingredients, needed for the contents to be safely distributed to community groups operating a commercial kitchen and end users through FareShare’s network of food banks. The frozen chicken is collected by a Fareshare representative who is notified of a donation in real time by the use of FoodCloud technology thereby minimising the human resource requirement.

Compelling case

In its recent ‘Value of food redistribution’ report, London-based redistribution charity City to Harvest argued that the business case for finding a home for any kind of surplus is now compelling. It noted that businesses can reduce the cost of food storage and warehouse space, as well as those associated with food waste management and the logistics of disposal (paying a contractor to transport the waste).

There is also a positive social story to tell. “Food that we give to our community partners frees up their budgets to be spent on essential support services like debt counselling, education, access to technology, legal assistance and so much more,” says Sarah Calcutt, CEO at City Harvest.

Meanwhile 40% of food donors surveyed by the charity acknowledged the benefit of redistribution to their workforce’s job satisfaction and mental well-being.

A commonly held view among businesses and redistribution organisations interviewed for Footprint’s own report was that implementing redistribution initiatives can help create a motivated, loyal workforce – a benefit that far outweighs any operational challenges. “We’ve seen that implementing sustainability initiatives such as ours can really improve employee engagement and therefore hopefully retention,” said Sophie Trueman, country director for Too Good To Go in the UK and Ireland.

All things considered, it’s hard to argue with David from Wrap when she asserts that “surplus food redistribution is a continued success story”.

Yet for all the positive vibes around growing levels of food redistribution it’s impossible to ignore a more dispiriting aspect to the story. The figures serve to highlight the growing number of people now relying on charity to feed themselves. A survey by Wrap of UK redistribution organisations found that 100% of respondents say demand for surplus food has risen in the past year with 92% identifying the cost-of-living crisis as the main factor influencing change.

It is striking how in recent years the strongest growth has come from the charitable rather than commercial redistribution sector. Since 2019, the volume of surplus food redistributed by charities has almost trebled from 30,985 tonnes to 85,150 tonnes. Commercial volumes grew significantly during the same period but at a much slower rate (23,454 tonnes to 41,470 tonnes) and charitable redistribution currently accounts for 70% of the total.

A period of rapid price inflation has contributed to a situation where buying an adequate amount of food is simply unaffordable for many people. The Food Foundation’s latest food insecurity tracker showed that 17% of households, housing 9 million adults, experienced moderate or severe food insecurity in June 2023, up from 7.3% during the summer of 2021.

Businesses will rightly continue to look for opportunities to get more surplus to those in need, but the growth in redistribution has also served to expose the urgent need for business actions and government policies that reduce the volume of food waste being generated in the first place, and allow people the dignity of being able to afford to feed themselves.

The Footprint Intelligence report in association with KFC UK & Ireland – Food Waste 2023: Reduce, redistribute, recycle – is available to download here.