Picking up the award for Outstanding British Film at last month’s BAFTAs, director Ken Loach railed against the “callous brutality” of a government whose blind pursuit of welfare reform, many believe, is behind the sharp rise in food insecurity in the UK since the recession. In an interview backstage, Loach explained why he thought the film had resonated so strongly with critics and the general public alike: “The human drama of a family that has to choose between keeping warm [and] not eating is intense, and hundreds of thousands of people are suffering.” If you haven’t seen I, Daniel Blake, do so immediately. There is one scene, in a food bank, in which Katie, a young mother of two, grabs a can of baked beans, opens it, and scoops cold handfuls into her mouth. “I’m just really hungry,” she sobs, afterwards. “I’m so sorry.”
Against this reality comes the depressing news that those of us who are fortunate enough not to rely on food banks to provide for our families are throwing away more food than ever. At the beginning of the year, a report published by WRAP, the government’s waste advisory body, put household food waste at an estimated 7.3 million tonnes in 2015. Of that figure, 4.4 million tonnes is thought to have been avoidable – in other words, it could have been eaten. Yet apparently these statistics are not sobering enough to curb our trigger-happy largesse; two weeks ago, it was reported that Sainsbury’s has abandoned a scheme to halve household food waste among customers after discovering that it was far harder than anticipated to effect behavioural change. The supermarket giant may have a point – we’ve all seen those “Love Food Hate Waste” ads but are you really going to turn down a midweek curry and a pint because there’s a chicken breast in your fridge that’s about to go off? Could our reluctance to embrace a mindful approach to food stem from the fact that (whisper it) it’s boring?
American chef Dan Barber and the team at wastED London – a pop-up restaurant on the roof at Selfridges – have put together a dining experience that is anything but boring. An elevator ride and a world away from the heedless consumerism of Oxford Street, everything on the menu is waste-based: from the “spent hen broth” made from hens that would otherwise have been slaughtered upon reaching the end of their productive laying period (typically around a year), to the “juice pulp burgers” utilising the mounds of fruit and vegetable pulp that are the byproduct of our current obsession with juicing. The most spectacular moment of the evening arrives at our table in the form of an enormous, glistening cod’s head, complete with gaping eye sockets and rows of teeth that look like they could do some serious damage. We suppress our squeamishness and set about hacking it to pieces; the amount of meat it yields is extraordinary.
In fact, everything about this restaurant is extraordinary. The chairs are made from artichoke thistle, the lampshades from mushrooms. That spent hen broth is ladled into bowls salvaged from the branch of Tonkotsu, downstairs. Even Krug, the restaurant’s champagne supplier – already recognised by Positive Luxury for its commitment to sustainability – is in on the act, providing wooden staves from discarded wine barrels to be used as serving boards throughout the evening. It is such a memorable experience that I begin to wonder whether this is where Sainsbury’s et al are going wrong. Meaningful behavioural change demands inspiration and, contrary to what Mary Berry may have you believe, mashing an overripe banana into a mealy sponge isn’t all that inspiring. wastED London is. Sure, it’s an extreme example – a feat this accomplished requires months of planning – but it leaves you feeling jazzed. Is this how you start a revolution? Full measures?
The following Saturday, feeling slightly the worse for wear, I pop down to my local FoodCycle in Lewisham. FoodCycle is a nationwide scheme run by volunteers who collect surplus food, usually from nearby supermarkets, and turn it into hot meals that are then served to the community, completely free of charge. The Lewisham branch (run in partnership with Rushey Green Time Bank) operates out of the Irish Centre, a drab brick building with metal grilles on the windows. Inside, folding tables are laid with wipe-clean tablecloths and paper napkins. Orange, white and green bunting is strung from the ceiling, a hangover from St. Patrick’s Day. There is a palpable church hall vibe. Perhaps it’s the lack of sleep, or the Sunday School flashbacks, but Selfridges’ rooftop suddenly feels like a half-remembered dream.
In the kitchen, four or five volunteers – mostly women – are preparing the day’s meal. They collect the food early in the morning and are entirely at the mercy of the supermarket’s stock management system. Today is proving particularly tricky – about three-quarters of the delivery is bread, and there is no fresh produce. Luckily, they have a £20 bursary for emergencies, which they dip into to buy ingredients for a salad and the tomato and onion bruschetta that will make up the first course. This is followed by a vegetable stir fry (because of hygiene regulations, meat is strictly off the menu) and bread-and-butter pudding with custard. Despite the women’s resourcefulness, there is a heap of baked goods left over, which they pile on a table by the door for guests to take home; long before lunch has finished, the table is bare.
Almost all of the guests are elderly, or out of work. Chatting to them, it’s clear that the opportunity to get out of the house and socialise is as big a draw as the promise of a hot lunch. I speak to one man, James, who tells me he has just come from a similar scheme nearby. He drinks a cup of tea then leaves halfway through, declining to eat the stir fry on the grounds that it’s “too dry”. The rest of the guests do not share his fussiness, though, and plates largely come back clean (the bread-and-butter pudding is a big hit – “Probably the rogue pain au chocolat,” one of the volunteers, Hannah, tells me). It’s heartening to witness the transformation of food that was destined for landfill into a nourishing meal, and to see that meal devoured.
Washing up in the kitchen afterwards, I feel uneasy about the extravagance of my dinner during the week. Earlier, I had told Judy, one of the FoodCycle guests, about my experience – she was astonished that anyone would pay to eat “imperfect” food and thought it fit only for projects like this, where it’s given away for free. I felt sad that she considered herself somehow undeserving of “restaurant-quality” food. And there’s the rub. How do you reconcile charging a small fortune for scraps and leftovers – however trussed-up – with the knowledge that, at the other end of the scale, there are people doing the same thing for free?
The truth is, you can’t. wastED and FoodCycle are two sides of the same coin: they may share a common goal but they are for different people. Hannah says that since she began volunteering, her attitude to food has completely changed: “Now I’m always trying to find ways to use leftovers. Freezing little bits to use later. It helps with saving money.” Maybe that’s the key. If we are serious about tackling food waste, then we need to figure out people’s soft spots and tailor our approach accordingly. Because vegetable stir fry isn’t for everyone.