by Rowan Van Tromp

The past few weeks have seen waves of literature surrounding the issue of food waste by supermarkets, following the French parliament’s decision to pass legislation compelling retailers with 4,305 square feet of store space to donate any unsold, but still edible, food, to charity or for use as animal feed or farming compost. All stores which fall under this criterion are obliged to sign agreements with charities to facilitate the redistribution of such food by 2016, or could face penalties of up to €75,000.

Calls have since been made for the UK to follow suit, and no wonder given that the UK far and away wastes the most food out of any European country — amounting to 15bn tonnes a year according to the government backed organisation WRAP, although just over 1% of this comes from stores

Ignoring the practicalities of organising the collection and redistribution of millions of tonnes of food waste is a fatal flaw

However, whilst the legislation acknowledges some of the potential burden on charities, by prescribing that unsold food must be handed over in a way that is ready to use, it does not recognise the operational strain that enforcing this may place on redistributing organisations. Ignoring the practicalities of organising the collection and redistribution of millions of tonnes of food waste is a fatal flaw in the well-intentioned and admirable attempts to devise a workable solution to what is a systemic issue within the food retail industry.

As volunteer coordinator for Norwich FoodCycle — a national charity committed to reducing food waste, food poverty and social isolation — I have developed a greater understanding of these difficulties, as well as how to potentially overcome them.

Being an environmentally conscious organisation, the bulk of our collections take place on bikes with trailers. This takes place on a Friday afternoon, with our collections coordinator Joey pedaling across the city to pick up from our numerate suppliers, including McCarthy’s Wholesale, M&S, and many independent stores.

to create a community bound together by salvaging food waste

The products complete the first stage in their journey from waste to plate at the Friends Meeting House, around 4pm, where our cooking leaders and enthusiastic team of volunteers hold their very own Master Chef style ingredients challenge to devise delightful dishes from the fresh collection and our dry food store. Another team of volunteers arrive in time to serve up to our diverse group of guests at 7pm, regularly plating up for over 40 people — ranging from rough sleepers and environmentalists, to students and the elderly — to create a community bound together by salvaging food waste.

(Bike trailer © FoodCycle)

The reality is that legislating to compel surplus food, or ‘waste’ food, to be directed to charities actually does very little in itself to re-direct the food to those in need, without equipping charities with the necessary resources for infrastructure to do so.

the city council should be at the forefront of developing such a network

There are many potential avenues, aside from FoodCycle, for which this food could be re-directed in Norwich. Grassroots groups such as Norwich Soup Movement and The People’s Picnic being two of many volunteer led organisations helping to feed Norwich’s community of rough sleepers, and Norwich FoodBank doing a stella job in providing a lifeline to families on the brink of destitution. But without a locally rooted, collaborative redistribution network there is only so much that can be achieved in raising circa 7,000 children out of food poverty in Norwich, facilitating better health and educational outcomes throughout their lives.

This means the city council should be at the forefront of developing such a network. Norse Norwich, a joint venture between Norse and Norwich City Council, has a monopoly on waste collection in the city because it is the most efficient means of collecting waste. This rings equally true for the collection and distribution of surplus food, from waste to plate. I am proposing the council set up a fully funded organisation to do just that. In turn this will reduce the necessity for frequent waste collections by Norse to food retailers, potentially therefore also reducing the cost to business of such collections.

(Food Waste © FoodCycle)

The scheme would involve collecting surplus food in the most environmentally sustainable way possible, bringing it to a controlled store to be sorted in line with food-safety requirements, before being re-distributed to a multitude of organisations providing for those in need. Collections would be made daily, at times agreed with the stores/restaurants supplying, so that staff become accustom to handling products in a manner that facilitates their continued use. Council involvement itself would be crucial in underwriting the perceived risk to businesses, especially large retailers, in determining who is worthy of receiving their goods.

Breakfast clubs in Norwich currently provide tens of thousands of pounds worth of unfunded support

Redistribution efforts would then be targeted to those able to cater to organisations catering to groups, such as the network of breakfast clubs that Norwich FoodBank supplies non-perishable food to, with the aim of using food that would otherwise be wasted ahead of purchased food. Breakfast clubs in Norwich currently provide tens of thousands of pounds worth of unfunded support, with dedicated teachers and support staff often picking up the bill.

I will soon be submitting a proposal to Norwich City Council in an attempt to persuade them this is the most effective means of tackling food poverty and food waste, two phenomenas which should not co-exist in the 7th richest country in the world. With £169m worth of cuts at Norfolk County Council set to start next month, which will no doubt result in hundreds more people facing life on the breadline, there has never been a more apt time to pursue such a project.


  1. Interesting idea but I don’t think it will work in the way you suggest, though I think there is a solution. The problem will be nationwide and neither Norwich city council nor many others will have the funding to set up and run such a scheme. There are actually a lot of waste contractors around, not just Norse. Waste is collected on behalf of the city council but its disposal is the resposibility of the county council. None of those involved has currently the capacity for bulk handling of food for human consumption.

    However, I think the solution is in the problem. If charities can’t afford to sign deals with supermarkets then the supermarkets face large fines if they can’t do what the law would require. That creates an incentive for supermarkets to pay to help charities set up proper collection and distribution systems. That is a much better way to fund the infrastructure required and keeps the focus squarely where it deserves to be – on the supermarkets. I expect supermarkets will improve controls on waste as the light shines on them. But none will want to be having to explain away the fines they have incurred when they could turn it into good PR by funding charities to take food away instead.

    So if you are approaching councils then think wider than the city – both big Tescos, Asda and two if the three Sainsbury’s are outside Norwich city council boundaries. Ask the councils for money and they will struggle to help. Ask them to help persuade the supermarkets to pay up to design a collection and distribution service that will help avoid expensive and embarrassing fines then the answer may well be more positive.


  2. What a wonderful thing to be able to help in such a way. Wishing you all the best for future endeavours, I think you and your team are pretty amazing helping to tackle such huge issues


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.