A growing army of New Zealanders is waging a war on waste. Every day, as people go hungry, good food is thrown away, simply because it doesn’t look pretty in a display cabinet.
On one page was a story about kids going to school hungry and on another a report about “dumpster divers” living off the food thrown out by supermarkets. For Dunedin woman Deborah Manning, that morning’s newspaper outlined both the problem and the seeds of a solution: surely someone needed to simply connect the good food that was getting dumped with the families going hungry?
For five months, she researched, talked to supermarkets and social service agencies and wrote food safety manuals. Then she ditched her job as a lawyer and threw herself into the complex business of matching waste with want.
She started by driving around Dunedin’s supermarkets in her car collecting day-old bread and items rejected because they were nudging their “best before” date and dropping them off around the city. In her first month of solo operation, she collected and distributed the equivalent of 1000 meals. When it got busier, she recruited a friend to help out. And when she could no longer see in the rear-vision mirror because of the volume of food stacked in the back, she explained her problem to a local car dealer, who donated a van.
Four years on, FoodShare, the organisation launched in the back of her vehicle, has distributed enough food to make more than a million meals. Every day, astonishing volumes of perfectly edible fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, and other unsold food from 55 shops and suppliers are funnelled with logistical precision through a room not much bigger than a home kitchen, from where it is collected by 58 recipient social agencies.
In Dunedin, volunteers and staff of Foodshare have distributed enough food in the past four years to make more than a million meals. Photo/Sharon Bennett
At nine each morning, the van driver and a volunteer do a sweep around city cafes and bakeries to collect short-dated items such as sandwiches, which are immediately dropped off to agencies that will use them by the end of that day. “Often those organisations say to their clients, ‘Before you tell me anything, sit down and have a sandwich, and then we’ll talk’ – because sometimes people haven’t eaten for days,” says Manning.
At around midday, there’s a second round of food collection, this time from supermarkets and other shops. It is brought back to the small brick building in a central Dunedin industrial zone that serves as FoodShare’s headquarters, where volunteers weigh it, document it and sort it into boxes matched to the needs of recipient agencies. A chiller at the rear of the room is crammed with bags of baby spinach, carrots, apples, milk, yoghurt; stacked on tables ready for sorting are loaves of bread and rolls, still fresh after a day on the supermarket shelf.
Manning has meticulously collected data from the moment she started FoodShare. To date, more than 400,000kg – that’s 400 tonnes – of food with an estimated value of nearly $4.2 million has been rescued from the waste stream and diverted to human need. She’s also monitoring the environmental benefits of rescuing food that took precious resources to produce: 1.7 million tonnes of CO2 has been saved, as well as enough water to fill 18 Olympic swimming pools and enough energy to power 109 homes for a year.
And it’s all done on the smell of an oily rag: for $1 in overheads (petrol for the delivery van, wages for the five part-time staff, electricity to keep the lights and chiller on), FoodShare can distribute three meals. Funding comes from grants, sponsorship and services donated by local businesses. Manning has also started making money by offering corporate team-building days, in which groups cook a meal using only rescued food under the guidance of a chef, box it up and take it to a charity of their choice.
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