This blog looks at the ‘paradox’ of food waste  and how some charities in the UK are fighting this by recovering food ‘surplus’ which otherwise are destined to be wasted, to feed the poor. First, I examine the models adopted by some of these charities and concludes with a discussion on ethical discourse  of using food waste to feed the poor – based on excepts from an interview  with a volunteer  from student led food waste recovery project (Save Our Sandwiches – S.O.S).


Charities like FareShare, The Real Junk Food Project (TRFJK), FoodCycles and S.O.S provide a vital lifeline to the needy by recovering food ‘surplus’ (Surplus food is food which is no longer desired, primarily due to products’ best-before dates, mislabeling, damage to packaging or out of date) from food industry. A close examination of their operations reveals two main models for food waste recovery and provisioning strategy:

  • Model 1: Food surplus is recovered from food industry and distributed to community groups either for redistribution or provisioning of meal to the needy (FareSahre and S.O.S). Here, the ‘burden’ of what happens to the recovered food is passed on to the community group.
  • Model 2: Food surplus is recovered from food industry and used to cook meals to feed the needy, either for a donation (cash/in-kind) or at no cost (TRJFP and FoodCycles).

Recovery Strategies in Detail

FareShare which operate on the model 1 (figure 1) started in 2004 and works with over 500 companies in the food industry. Community groups pay small monthly membership fees in order to receive weekly supplies. This means that cash stricken groups cannot access the services.


Fig 1. FareShare Model of operation

FareShare is pushing the boundaries for food access, through its new FoodCloud, where supermarket indicate their surplus food online and registered charities receives a text for pick up (figure.2). Since it lunch in 2016, 750 groups have been connected to 1000 Tesco stores across UK, and now intend to have it directly integrated into Tesco’s own systems. In terms of volumes, 10,795 tonnes of surplus food were rescued last year providing nearly 22 million meals to the needy.


Fig 2: How FoodCloud works

Similar to FareShare is S.O.S project, which reclaims surplus food across University of Sheffield food outlets, and distribute to local charities. Unlike FareShare, there is no membership fee. The group organises its activities through face book, where core volunteers sign up to do daily collections; and have achieved 1000th collection in just a year. The group has expanded its activities to include collections from local Sainsbury shop.

TRJFP and FoodCycles operates on model 2. TRJFP operates a franchise ‘pay as you feel cafes’ in commercial styles kitchen, where chefs turn waste food into healthy meals. The café(s) is open to everyone and offers free meals for in-kind (volunteering) / cash donation. Unlike TRJFP, FoodCycles operate community hubs across  UK, where volunteers are trained and supported to collect surplus food from retailers and then cook it in spare kitchen spaces to feed the needy at no cost.

Undoubtedly, the food waste recovery strategies by these charities are pushing the boundaries for food access and provisioning.  Their operations unlike food banks, focuses on recovering fresh food from being wasted.  For instance, FareShare reported that, in 2016 between 77% – 88% of its charity members received fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and poultry; diary products, cereals and soft drinks (figure 3).


Ethical Dilemmas

In-spite of the great work done by these charities, the big question that remains to be answered is  ‘does the poor deserve what the rest of us do not want’? I explored this question with Iglob (pseudonym) from S.O.S project.

I: […..] So you talked about reclaiming food that might go to waste, and distributing it to people in need, do you see any ethical issues with this?

Igloo: ……, I mean implicit in it, when you are doing that…., I think what happens is, when you say to people you cannot afford food, that is ok. But when you say we can feed you with this, you do create a hierarchy, and I think what…, I mean this is kind of, I get more theoretical.…, but what you end up saying is, you cannot afford food, but you can have the stuff that we don’t want essentially. It sort of, it kind of create a ‘second class of people’ who must be fed from the left overs of others. Ehmm, but I think that on ethicality, it is created by the food industry itself, I don’t think it is created by re-distribution programs like ours. I think the minute you start to put a price on food, you create a hierarchy and you necessitate that some people would not be part of this main food buying class. I think the redistribution of food at least give people access to the same food although in a different context’.

For Iglob, feeding the poor with food waste creates ‘second class’ of people, which is necessitated by the food industry and price system. The discourse on this issue needs a critical consideration in  the fight against food waste and food poverty, as Iglob shared this in his final thought ………

I: [ …] Any final thought…..?

Igloo: ‘Your question about ethics was an interesting one…….. It is something that I have always assumed that obviously it is ethical; maybe it isn’t…. I don’t know?……I guess the argument would be, you know, is it better for people to have sort of ‘second best food’, if the alternative is no food at all? But I suppose, that is the issue with ethics, it is always tangential and digressive……’


Indeed, as Iglob pointed out, the issue of ethics is not ‘one side fit all’, may be for now…….‘it better for people to have sort of second best food, if the alternative is no food at all’.  Whichever way one might judge it, it is worth noting that, these charities in their fight against food waste, are equally fighting food poverty and ensuring some fairness in the food system. But the dilemma of provisioning ‘second class’ food to ‘second class’ people still hangs’ around us, unless there is an equitable food system that works for all.