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Winning the war on waste

As the rest of the country continues to waste food on a catastrophic level, WA has stepped up to address the issue of food waste head-on. We now have some of the most forward-thinking initiatives in the world.

When it comes to food waste we are, it seems, at crisis point.

Gone are the days of eating everything on our plate; today, an astonishing 20 per cent of all food purchased is thrown away.

In real terms, this means that the average Australian family is throwing away one out of every five bags of groceries purchased, adding up to $1,036 per household.

When you put it like that, it’s not hard to see why it’s time to take action.

“The stats show that collectively we’re throwing away about $8 billion worth of food each year,” Ros Sambell, from ECU’s School of Medical and Health Science, explains.

“The biggest wasters seem to be 18 to 24-year-olds, people who have an income over $100,000, and families with children.”

Add this food wastage up, and you’re looking at enough to fill 450,000 garbage trucks. From an environmental point of view, this is devastating.

Once in landfill, the wasted food rots with other organics and produces methane, an organic gas that is 25 times more potent than the carbon pollution coming from your car’s exhaust.

In addition, when you discard food, you’re also wasting the water, fuel and resources it took to get the food to your front door.

So why is the problem so bad?

“We’re becoming somewhat disconnected from food production,” Sambell says.

“Food simply appears on the shelves of our supermarket, without us considering the resources that are used in the production of that food; the time, the hours, the water, the transport, the cold storage, the packaging. If you’re discarding food, you’re discarding those resources as well.”

Food literacy

Sambell believes food literacy has a huge role to play in changing our attitudes towards wastage. As the co-lead of the Jamie’s Ministry of Food program sponsored by ECU, she teaches strategies that prioritise the importance of healthy food and promotes skills that give individuals the confidence to plan, shop or grow foods, then cook and eat them in a connected way.

“Our mothers passed on to us how to cook and how to plan, but we’re not all passing this on to our children,” she explains.

“This has seen a decline in cooking skills, as well as meal planning.

“We’re so used to the convenience of thinking, ‘What am I going to have for dinner tonight?’ that we can over-purchase, then do the same thing tomorrow.

“It’s the whole gamut of food literacy, from planning, shopping, cooking and even eating that appears to have a reduced priority in our day-to-day living.”

According to Sambell, food-literacy programs give people confidence in cooking from scratch. They encourage people to purchase whole foods and teach them how to plan meals.

“These programs build skills and confidence, so people don’t find it as challenging to make the right choices,” she says.

“There’s certainly a lot of food products that get discarded at that production level because they’re not deemed as attractive for consumers. We want to make these products more acceptable.”

Nutrition and dietetic student Eleanora Stojanoska and senior lecturer of Nutrition and Dietetics Dr Therese O'Sullivan.
Nutrition and dietetic student Eleanora Stojanoska and senior lecturer of Nutrition and Dietetics Dr Therese O'Sullivan.

To address the issue of food wastage, Associate Professor Therese O’Sullivan, senior lecturer of Nutrition and Dietetics at ECU, is working with nutrition and dietetic student Eleanora Stojanoska to develop a ground-breaking new app called ReFood.

“The aim is to establish a foodsharing network, to make it as easy as possible for businesses to offload food that might otherwise be going in the bin,” Dr O'Sullivan says.

“Cafes and restaurants typically  produce somewhere between two to seven kilograms of waste per day for each full-time employee they have. Of that, about 30 per cent is food waste.

“Bakeries end up throwing out bags of perfectly edible bread, freshly made that morning, because they’ve got nothing else to do with it.

“The ReFood app will send an alert to your phone, telling you that there’s food nearby that’s available to collect. We’re trying to connect local community groups with local businesses, so that good food is not wasted.”

While the issue is fundamentally centred on wastage, food security is also significant.

“Food security is an issue in WA,” Dr O'Sullivan says.

“Recent research by ECU PhD student Lucy Butcher suggests that there are more people at risk of food insecurity here in WA than we initially thought.

“It seems that with the mining downturn, a lot of people are overextended.

Even though the mining boom is over, the cost of living is still very high. They might not have the same income coming in, but the costs are still the same.”

Food to the rescue

One organisation leading the war against waste in Western Australia is Food Rescue. Manager Julie Broad works closely with Sambell to stay at the forefront of research and innovation, with the result that Food Rescue is doing something quite extraordinary for both the community and the environment.

Food Rescue was established in 2011 by Jacqui Jordan, who had a passion for providing fresh, nutritious food to people doing it tough. Today, the organisation rescues 500,000 kilograms of fresh food each year, as well as four cubic metres of plastic each week.

Sambell is now training third-year Community Nutrition students in Food Literacy Education strategies, with these students in turn training agencies who access food from Food Rescue.

The goal is to reduce waste overall and increase fruit and vegetable consumption.

Food Rescue Manager Julie Broad and a Food Rescue volunteer with the food carts in Perth's CBD.
Food Rescue Manager Julie Broad and a Food Rescue volunteer with the food carts in Perth's CBD.

“Food Rescue is leading the way in food waste here in Australia,” Broad explains.

“Not only do we digest all the food on site – the inedible food that we don’t pass over to charities – but we also recycle all the plastics that we inherit from supermarkets.”

When Broad joined Food Rescue in 2014, she saw an opportunity to expand the organisation’s remit, and make a greater environmental impact.

At the beginning of this year, an Orca aerobic digester was introduced to Food Rescue, with the result that all inedible food is digested on site and returned to the waste water stream.

“Fresh food has had a lot of food miles under its belt by the time it gets to us; it’s been grown on the farm, gone to the market, gone to the supermarket, and then come to us,” Broad explains.

“Our food doesn’t continue on any more food miles. We take off all the plastic, pack up the edible food, and then the inedible food – the manky old strawberries and squashed avocadoes – is digested in our warehouse.”

In addition to the great work Food Rescue does on site in Balcatta, it also operates two cargo carts, which collect food from the city’s cafes and restaurants.

“With the help of 18 corporates and four schools, we push two carts around the CBD. Volunteers walk around to the 48 cafes, and then one of our vans collects the food and takes it to homeless people and refuges by five o’clock every day," she says.

“Last year we rescued 42,000 items, and connected the community in the process.”

Solution begins at home

According to the experts, the war against waste begins with us, at home.

“Start writing a meal plan for the week,” Sambell suggests.

“Check what food you already have in your fridge and cupboard before you go shopping.

“Think twice before buying any specials or deals – do you really need it?

“Also look at portion sizes, and make sure you’re not overconsuming, then consider using leftovers for lunch the next day.

“Look at composting food waste you generate at home, or setting up a worm farm. Even better, grow your own fruit, veg and herbs – even a fruit tree. Quite simply: go back to basics.”


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