If ever there was a more paradoxical issue in current times, it is that of excessive amounts of food pilling up on landfill sites and the rising number of people in the UK struggling to put food on the table.
It is mind-boggling to think that over eight million people in the UK are going hungry or living in food poverty every day, yet edible, surplus food that could make around 650 million meals ends up being thrown away by our food industry each year.
In a bid to tackle these two rising problems, a Barnsley-based charity is leading the way when it comes to turning an environmental issue into a social solution.
FareShare Yorkshire, which has its main distribution centre in Wombwell, is part of a national initiative which takes in surplus food from manufacturers and supermarkets to share out amongst charities and community groups that will put it to good use.
Food is made to be eaten, not thrown away, and FareShare Yorkshire currently distribute quality food items to 270 not-for-profit organisations across Yorkshire to feed vulnerable people in our communities.
From a healthy breakfast for schoolchildren to start the day with a full tummy, to a hot meal for the rising number of homeless people on our streets, or a roast dinner for the elderly who are lonely and isolated; every meal provided not only cuts waste but also helps to improve some of society’s most pressing issues.
As the UK’s longest running food redistribution charity, the national arm of FareShare was launched in the mid-90s when Sainsbury’s were looking for responsible ways to deal with excess stock left over from Christmas. They teamed up with homeless charity, Crisis, to open a depot in London which expanded quickly across the UK.
The Barnsley distribution centre was the second to open in 1998, with FareShare now made up of 21 regional centres across the country covering 2,000 towns and cities, supplying surplus food to almost 11,000 charities and community groups nationwide.
The Yorkshire branch also has a sub-regional site in Leeds, and their main warehouse moved to larger premises in Wombwell five years ago due to demand to help more people in need.
“We’ve grown immensely since starting up, particularly over the last six years. Back in 2013, we had 2.5 staff and worked with 60 charities which shows that demand for food is there but also that we are helping reduce wastage,” says Office and Development Manager, Jonathan Williams.
Today, the Barnsley depot is run by a team of 40 volunteers and 14 paid staff who have the mammoth task of taking in anywhere between two and 20 cages of surplus food that arrive each week. All deliveries must then be logged on their database, GLADYS, before being picked and packed ready to be delivered to their many recipients.
Large metal shelves are stacked with ambient foods and staple items such as tins of soup, jars of sauces, bags of coffee and packets of crisps. They also have a range of fresh and chilled items with everything from fruit, vegetables and potatoes to meat and cheese depending on the season and shipment.
FareShare Yorkshire currently works with around 100 food industry companies from major supermarkets like Co-Op, Asda and Tesco, to national brands like Arla, Muller, Pipers and Pennine Foods. Together, they save 1,100 tonnes of food from ending up in landfill sites each year and instead provide 2.6 million meals to the people of Yorkshire.
Most of the foods they are given have never made it to the supermarket aisles for one reason or another. This could be due to packaging or weight errors, offers that have since ended, bulk orders that have been cancelled, or a product they have made too much of.
While some foods may have short best before dates, all food taken by FareShare must be well within its use-by date to comply with food standards, for which they have held the gold standard for six years.
“The majority of the food we give out will have the best part of a week’s shelf life as we don’t want our partners to be under pressure to use stock within a day or 48 hours before it goes bad. That would defeat the object,” Jonathan says.
So how does it work?
Stock changes each week depending on what arrives at the warehouse and so FareShare cannot ever guarantee what each of their member groups will receive each time. However, because all items are logged efficiently, the staff and volunteers work with the applicants’ preferences to advise on what foods they can offer.
Each organisation that uses FareShare typically pays between £14 and £20 for around £200 worth of food each week. They also have access to the FareShare Go scheme whereby partner supermarkets will send members a text at the end of each day stating the perishable items that are available to collect for free instead of being thrown away.
But Jonathan says this is not just a cost cutting exercise; the community groups and charities they work with must help people in need and be a not-for-profit organisation, such as day centres for the disabled, women’s refuges or foodbanks.
Similarly, FareShare is not just there to take in waste from the big food companies; the initiative is there to aid companies fulfil their social and environmental commitment to society.
Nationwide, over 270,000 tonnes of food that is fit for human consumption is unnecessarily dumped by the food industry each year; food that has used power and water to create plus fuel to transport, resulting in millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the process.
Yet in Yorkshire, almost 90,000 people received emergency food parcels from Trussell Trust foodbanks last year, including over 32,000 children.
FareShare are pioneering the need for change.
In recognition of their hard work, FareShare Yorkshire recently won two awards at this year’s Barnsley and Rotherham Business Awards; the Community Impact Award and Charity of the Year for which they also received a £3,000 donation from Barnsley and Rotherham Chamber.
“It was so humbling to just be nominated as we were up against other charities that do some fantastic work and help people in need. But winning both of our categories was just fantastic,” Jonathan says.
For the Community Impact Award, their nomination was based on a recent project whereby the Barnsley team have been working with the Government’s WRAP scheme, Waste and Resources Action Programme, to look at how to combat logistics problems faced in the supply chain.
“We found that some suppliers who wanted to give us their surplus foods simply didn’t have the resources to do so. Over the last year, we introduced a 7.5 tonne lorry which we can now send out to suppliers who couldn’t previously reach us and it means we now collect 30 to 40 extra tonnes of food each month,” Jonathan says.
As an independent charity, they rely solely on monetary donations to be able to operate. For every £1 that gets donated, it provides four meals to people in Yorkshire. However, they also accept skills or goods to help run the warehouse such as IT equipment, safety gear, cool boxes or even digital and photography skills.
Although there are 14 staff, ten of whom are grant funded, the bulk of the workforce is made up of volunteers, some having been there each day for over ten years such as van driver, Duncan, who recently became a paid employee thanks to funding.
All volunteers are offered training opportunities in return for their services which is funded by the South Yorkshire Community Foundation.
Every eight weeks, the Barnsley warehouse welcomes a new cohort of volunteers aged between 17 and 70, the majority being long-term unemployed, from organisations such as MENCAP and the Job Centre.
At FareShare, not only do they gain on the job experience, but they also build on their soft skills such as punctuality, appropriate language and behaviour in the workplace, and personal hygiene. They can also undertake two types of forklift truck permit training thanks to one colleague who is qualified to train and test people in manual operation.
Half of the last 30 volunteers have since found work, with 44 of the 92 total volunteers that FareShare have worked with now in paid employment.
As a nation, environmental issues such as climate change and wastage are at the forefront of current affairs with more and more people waking up to the consequences that lie ahead if we don’t take action.
Organisations such as FareShare are leading the way, but we can also help by each doing our own bit to reduce the food wastage each household creates every year.
So this Christmas, think wisely as you do your Christmas food shop. Do you actually like sprouts or will they just be cooked and left uneaten by your guests? Do you really need seven types of cheese for two people?
For more information about FareShare, to donate or sign up to the scheme, visit their website: www.fareshareyorkshire.org