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With our population set to reach over 9 billion by 2040, can businesses feed people not at the cost of our planet?

Podcast Ep #2: Food Waste, Part 1

August 22, 2022
June 29, 2023
Podcast Ep #2: Food Waste, Part 1

This is part one of our series on the problem of food waste: we're wasting a third of our food, so what can businesses do about it? In this episode, we look at what's led to all this waste, and one tried and true approach for addressing the problem - redistribution - with case studies about Nando's and DC Central Kitchen.

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This is part one of our series on food waste, with plenty more to come. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts!



[00:00:00] This is part one of our series on food waste. We're throwing away a third of our food. So what can businesses do about it? If you like what you hear, there's plenty more to come in future episodes.

[00:00:14] Hey Gill.

[00:00:16] Hello.

[00:00:17] How you going?

[00:00:18] Good.

[00:00:18] What are we talking about today? We are talking about food waste.

[00:00:22] We're in one of the food capitals of the world. Well, at least we think so anyway, down in Melbourne, Australia. So that coffee machine that's going behind you is, happening all over Melbourne. We also produce a lot of food here and export of food is a huge part of the Australian economy. But this obviously isn't an Australian only thing. This affects all businesses around the world. We all eat and there are many businesses involved in the whole food supply chain.

[00:00:45] Yeah. And what we've found is food waste happens all throughout from the farm gate all the way through to what we're eating on our plate and then what happens after that? It touches all of us.

[00:00:55] Let's get into it.


[00:00:57] I started researching food waste and I couldn't believe the scale of the problem of how much we were wasting.

[00:01:04] That was Jenny Costa. She founded a company called Rubies in the Rubble, and they use food that would've otherwise gone to waste to make a whole range of different condiments like chutneys, relishes, sauces. And they're stocked in major supermarkets in the UK.

[00:01:19] Yeah, I'm glad she said she's surprised at the problem, cuz hearing what you said earlier, we waste a third of the food, that we produce is just shocking. That's a lot of food that could help people. Yeah. It's a lot of wasted resources and energy and effort.

[00:01:33] In learning about nightclubs and restaurants and catering, I learned how much food was thrown away every night by people who love food. It's not like they were laughing and throwing, legs of lamb in the dumpster.

[00:01:46] It's a great image. Isn't it? Well, that was Robert Egger and he founded the DC Central Kitchen in 1989 in Washington, DC.

[00:01:56] This is a story of how we've collectively lost our way in how we value, preserve, transform, and enjoy food and how businesses can help us find our way to a better path again.

[00:02:09] This episode, we'll be exploring one route: redistribution. We'll be hearing stories about Nando's, and social enterprise DC Central Kitchen.

[00:02:18] And I just said, wow, if you could collect from the restaurants, the hotels, the caterers, the hospitals, farmers, food that they hate to throw away and and make sure it's handled professionally, you could feed more people better food for less money.

[00:02:32] I mean, it's exciting that someone like this has been working on this problem since what do you say? 1989. That's amazing.

[00:02:38] Saving food and preventing waste have been central concerns for all of human history, for many, a matter of sheer survival as it continues to be today. So, how did we end up here wasting a third of the food we produce around the world?

[00:02:53] Well, let's pick up the story in the 20th century. In the global economic expansion that followed World War II, employment and wages rose. In the food industry innovations in agricultural machinery, storage, food processing, and transportation vastly increased efficiency and lowered the costs of production.

[00:03:15] Food waste was a victim of the economy's success.

[00:03:18] As food cost less and people had more to spend food waste grew. Whereas in 1901, an American household spent just over two fifths of their net income on food. About a hundred years later, this figure had dropped to one fifteenth of a household's income being spent on food. With it, the financial incentives for people to save and preserve food deteriorated.

[00:03:42] We used to be really good at managing, maintaining and optimizing our food, cause it was scarce, but over the last, you know, a hundred years, we've really optimized and made it super cheap to make food at mass.

[00:03:51] So it's like, eh, if we throw it out, whatever. Yeah. Cause the cost is so low.

[00:03:55] And that's really a symptom of developed economies where we have access to affordable food, much more easily. But in a lot of food cultures around the world, you see this emphasis on using every single part of produce or meat that's available to them.

[00:04:10] With such a bounty of food on offer, retailers began to enforce stringent aesthetic standards on the food they bought and sold. For retailers, overstocking was preferable to the risk of undersupplying customers. And so food products past their prime would be binned.

[00:04:26] The actual retailers want to make the shelves look full and abundant and to make people feel like they want to pick that product. One lonely melon often doesn't do it.

[00:04:38] I used to work in food and beverage in restaurants and bars. And I know that when we didn't present our food well and bountifully people wouldn't buy it. So, it has a direct commercial impact to have not enough food.

[00:04:52] Innovations in packaging meant that food products could be stored for longer periods and transported further distances, but it also meant that customers could no longer feel or see products as they did before.

[00:05:05] So enter the rise of best before and used by date stamping: a practice so inconsistent that by the 1970s, there were more than 50 different labeling systems.

[00:05:15] For safety conscious consumers, food that had not gone off may still be discarded due to conservative date stamping by producers and retailers.

[00:05:25] Around this time, convenience also grew to be a high priority for customers with ready to eat meals and dining out, becoming a norm.

[00:05:35] The general society is so far away from the production of food that you go down the supermarket and you forget that that ready meal came from a field and it was farmers taking it in. They're worried about the rain one month and whether it's gonna be too hot the next, and almost you forget that food is natural. And when it's packaged up so beautifully, it's hard to relate to that.

[00:05:57] So our problem with food waste has been decades in the making.

[00:06:02] In higher income countries, while many people still struggle with food insecurity, the accessibility and relative affordability of food has created a perfect storm of consumption and waste, as the value we place on food has dropped.

[00:06:17] So you might have heard the term food insecurity before. It's where people either don't have money to purchase their next meal, or they don't know how they're going to feed their family for that week. And it's still a common problem in developed economies, like in Australia and the us and the UK.

[00:06:33] From an economic perspective, the inefficiency of food production globally is mind boggling. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the FAO, estimates that the financial cost of wasted food amounts to about 1 trillion US dollars a year.

[00:06:48] Over and above that figure, the FAO puts environmental costs of food waste at an equivalent of 700 billion per year and social costs at an equivalent of 900 billion.

[00:06:59] Today, landfills are still a common method of waste management. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food waste represents close to a quarter of what goes into landfills at 35 million tons a year.

[00:07:15] For each ton of food in the landfill, 1.9 tons of greenhouse gases are emitted.

[00:07:21] One thing I never understood about food going to landfill is why is it worse than say composting food, if it's natural and it's breaking down, what's the problem.

[00:07:30] yeah. But the issue with landfill is that because the food doesn't have access to oxygen when it's all compressed it doesn't break down like it does in a compost and that's when it emits these, harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

[00:07:42] Yeah, something I learned just composting in general, recently in my journey of learning this stuff, to your point, it needs the right amount of oxygen, you need to turn it over. It needs the right amount of heat and temperature, but not too much and not nothing the right ingredients that you put too much leaves in or grass in. But you can get it wrong. So landfill is worse than that.

[00:08:00] Aside from that, along with the food goes all the energy, emissions, water, land use, and human effort that went into its production, harvesting, packaging, storage, and transport.

[00:08:12] I think food waste is a very complicated one to understand as a consumer or get your head around why does it matter? When you think of a bowl of pasta that you might have cooked too much and thinking of the energy involved in growing that wheat processing it, turning it into pasta, packaging it, shipping. Getting supermarket, you then buy it, take it home it, and that carbon, this energy, that whole cycle is the harder bit to communicate.

[00:08:45] Thinking about a can of corn coming from South America, flying across the world to Europe, all that carbon emissions, all the people involved just to transport it from one continent to another, let alone all the other processes involved, that is so much waste.

[00:09:00] I think you don't think of it because it's just like on the shelf and it costs a dollar. Yes. But that's because this is done at scale.

[00:09:05] Yeah. So it's a huge problem. It's economic, it's environmental and it's social.

[00:09:15] When you hear the term food waste, what images are coming to your mind?

[00:09:20] it's a visceral image for me of like piles of food, sort of steaming and gross. Emitting stuff. It just feels wrong and weird.

[00:09:31] For me, it can sound like something that's hazardous, potentially harmful or inedible and of limited use or value to us. While those might be our first impressions of food waste, research based in the UK found that three fifths of food wastage is avoidable and could have been eaten if it were managed differently.

[00:09:51] So let's see what businesses can do to reduce food waste through redistribution.

[00:09:57] Meet the waste hierarchy. The waste hierarchy is a tool to help evaluate which actions are the most preferable for protecting the environment and our use of resources.

[00:10:09] From a food waste perspective the highest priority is prevention: preventing the amount of surplus food produced. This can be done through better data collection and planning but sometimes demand and other factors are harder to predict.

[00:10:23] Food is perishable. It's governed by the weather, which is unpredictable. And then at the other end, it's governed by us in our demand, which is also unpredictable.

[00:10:32] Next on the hierarchy is reuse, finding alternative streams of human consumption for the food. This is where redistribution fits into the picture, which is essentially finding an alternative way to get edible food to people, that might otherwise go to waste.

[00:10:49] (CHECK MUSIC TRANSITION) How does prevention relate to redistribution? Are they the same thing? So they're different things. Prevention is your first best option. That's not producing so much food that's going to end up in surplus. Cool. But if you've got all this food in front of you, the next best thing to do is redistribute it.

[00:11:03] Great.

[00:11:04] And we're looking at that in this episode.

[00:11:05] Cool.

[00:11:06] Yep.

[00:11:06] Let's see what redistribution can look like in practice with a story of Nando's.

[00:11:12] Nandos is a popular chicken restaurant chain started in South Africa and has spread to many locations around the world.

[00:11:19] I used to be Head of Sustainability at Nando's in the UK for five years and in Australia for three years. Leading social and environmental programs predominantly with a view to reducing our impact, engaging our employees, or our Nandocas as we call them as well as then improving the service and the brand for our customers.

[00:11:45] A few years ago, Nandos introduced a redistribution program that they call NanDonation, first in the UK and later in Australia.

[00:11:54] The hero project, both in the UK and in Australia was the work we did redistributing surplus chicken to people in need. We set up local relationships between local restaurants and local charities so that they could donate chicken that would otherwise have gone in the bin. And that just ticked all the boxes.

[00:12:13] The Nandocas hated throwing chicken in the bin at the end of the night, they loved putting it in the freezer so that it would go to a good cause. There's a social angle of people getting fed a good nutritious protein and the environmental angle that, that chicken wasn't produced and then thrown in the bin, it was produced and then eaten. So it just ticked all the boxes.

[00:12:32] The program has now seen millions of meals redistributed. For Nando's, the early success of the program relied on building buy-in among the team and addressing the practical challenges through a pilot phase.

[00:12:46] If you can make things easier for the team, save money and save the environment, then you'll have no problem. When you find something that does do all of those things, and those things do exist, then you get a lot of traction really quickly. But I would also say on the flip side of that, when you don't tick all three of those boxes, you also can meet a lot of resistance. And things can be really hard. Achieving changes is a really hard thing to do.

[00:13:14] Yeah, I think that's the essence of what we're doing with the Pickle is just acknowledging that doing change in businesses for good is not easy. It's not like we just need to philosophically decide that we want to be good and then you're magically good. Takes a lot of work. People are running businesses. They're trying to stay profitable. They're trying to beat their competitors, trying to keep their staff, make them happy. So there's a lot of just basics that are very hard to do well. So then you add in a layer of, let's also save the planet help people, and no matter how good your intentions you can't just do it. This is super interesting.

[00:13:47] Yeah. Great example of that.

[00:13:49] I think when you are running an environmental or sustainability program or a community program, the same rules apply to any other program, you need to get some buy-in, go through a proper trial. Be really fair about the way that you operate the trial and the way that you assess that trial. Present that back in a way that's really fair.

[00:14:11] Get more buy-in, expand the trial, go to the next stage. So it's project management. I would say that the very first step in all of that is about getting emotional buy-in from people because there will be hurdles.

[00:14:21] I remember, actually in this particular example, when we were trying to donate chicken, I remember sitting down a number of times where our Head of Technical in the UK, because I was concerned about food safety risks, and he was, he was emotionally, absolutely bought in.

[00:14:36] And I remember him sitting down one day with me and saying, 'Look, Bob, our chicken is very safe to eat after it's been frozen. It just needs to be reheated according to a process. We have written a process. There is no greater risk of making people sick than making our own customers sick.'

[00:14:54] And because he was emotionally bought in, he was there championing it, and I wasn't having to push him to make a decision he didn't want to make.

[00:15:02] And when you have emotional, buy-in from people in the team, then they're prepared to stick with you.

[00:15:06] This sounds like another business initiative, getting any business change done needs to make sense, make profit, save money, make people happier. It happens to have a benefit to it. One thing I take out of what Bob's saying there is to treat this, like any other change you're trying to do an organization. Yes. Not as this different, special, magical thing.

[00:15:23] Yes. And it's taking maybe your large picture vision of what your business wants to do with this issue and breaking it down into maybe rolling out a small trial or breaking it into manageable chunks and easy program people can implement. Yeah. The other thing I thought was interesting, it's not just a companywide initiative that everyone needs to follow, or one person needs to do. It's a mix of things where little individual problems need to be unpicked and figured out, but can then unleash a whole lot of change.

[00:15:48] So Nando's had to assess the added time, training, resources it would take to roll out a food redistribution program like this. Taking an honest look at the potential hurdles and developing a system that was really straightforward for team members to implement definitely helps; as well as developing internal buy-in about the social and environmental benefits of rescuing food. These factors have helped the program to succeed.

[00:16:14] Nando's is a purpose driven business. There's a fundamental belief in doing more than selling chicken and the engine of the business is selling chicken to make money, to enable the business to do more good.

[00:16:33] Beyond the environmental and social benefits of redistributing food, are there other benefits to businesses looking to go down this path?

[00:16:42] Well businesses partnering with food rescue operations as a way to prevent avoidable food waste is a pretty common practice.

[00:16:49] In many cases, businesses that donate excess food products are able to claim a tax deduction on the value of goods given, making this a more financially viable option than dumping stock. But what about the potential liability risks associated with redistributing food to other organisations? Maybe your business, like many others is averse to donating food for that very reason.

[00:17:13] Interesting enough, there's never been any liability concern. It's probably one of the greatest urban myths almost globally, um because you hear this constantly, even today. There is no law that says you can't donate food.

[00:17:29] When President Bill Clinton was elected, we had a Secretary of Agriculture named Dan Glickman, who really was upset about the amount of food that we were wasting in America. And at the time nobody knew there had never been any studies. So we embarked together on both a study of the issue, but also this issue of let's create a national law. So in 1996, I got to go to the White House and see Bill Clinton signed the Food Donor Act which was the first time we created that same liability protection that exists now.

[00:18:01] There are provisions built into the law in the US, Australia, as examples, that protect food donors from liability if the food that they've donated has been given free of charge and is safe to eat at the time of donation. It's also important that you give instructions if there are particular storage or preparation requirements.

[00:18:21] I went out one night, just innocently with no real intent on doing anything more than having a volunteer experience, feeding poor people who were sleeping outside in Washington, DC.

[00:18:35] And as we drove around that night by the White House, by the World Bank, by the Smithsonian Museums, feeding people, I couldn't help through many of the conversations feel like, wow, my stereotype of who is homeless and why it's very wrong.

[00:18:50] And so on the way home, my wife, or my fiance at the time was a legal secretary. And I said, would you mind just writing some things down while we're going home? And I just said, wow, if you could collect from the restaurants, the hotels, the caterers, the hospitals, farmers, food that they hate to throw away and make sure it's handled professionally, you could feed more people, better food for less money. If we started a cooking school for the homeless, you could feed twice as many people, and you could shorten the line by the very way you served it because you'd be offering the chance for people to come out of the line to be part of the solution versus just endless recipients of charity.

[00:19:29] Robert Egger founded the DC Central Kitchen in 1989. Set up as a social enterprise, the kitchen collected donated food from producers, restaurants and hospitality services, which they would prepare and serve free of charge to people in need.

[00:19:46] What an amazing initiative, so cool. How they solved so many different problems all at once.

[00:19:50] At the same time DC Central Kitchen would purchase food that was out of spec at a lower cost and train people that experience barriers to employment for careers in the food industry, running a catering business and cafe before social enterprise was a common idea. After approaching existing charities with this social enterprise concept and being knocked back, Robert opened DC Central Kitchen with a bang.

[00:20:16] As you probably know, most or much of business is marketing. And I opened up the DC Central Kitchen on January 20th, 1989, which is George Bush Senior's Inauguration Day.

[00:20:28] And I called up with quite honestly, kind of a white dude's confidence, and just said, ' Hey, inaugural committee, you're gonna have these big parties. You'd have tons of leftover food. Let's do each other a favor. This makes you look good. I've got a new refrigerated truck. Let's do business.' And so on opening day, we had media from around the world wanting to cover food going through the inaugurations to a kitchen and feeding people the next day.

[00:20:53] That really kind of set the framework for the kitchen as being an open source business that would constantly innovate, but always share whatever we came up with.

[00:21:04] This idea of sharing innovations and making things open source is a common theme through different topics we've looked at. When we looked at packaging, Anna Ross from Kester Black spoke about businesses making their innovations open source to help the whole industry move forward.

[00:21:23] Yeah.

[00:21:25] Robert Egger recognized the power of business to create positive social change in his city and to create a more equitable food system.

[00:21:34] So yeah, food waste is a huge problem. 30% of food we produce is wasted since silly. It's bad for the planet, bad for the economy, bad for people. There have been people tackling these problems through really interesting methods. And today we spoke about redistribution. So changing where food goes if it's been made. What's up next?

[00:21:51] Next episode, we are looking at how businesses can repurpose food to make valuable products.

[00:21:57] Awesome. We'll be hearing more from Jenny Costa, who we heard in this episode about the story of Rubies in the Rubble and we'll also be looking at how businesses are applying technology to tackle really hard to manage food waste problems. Yeah. Exciting.

[00:22:11] Has your business considered redistribution as a potential route to reducing your food waste? If so, there are so many food rescue organizations located all around the world. So definitely look into what's working in your area.

[00:22:27] So this is episode one in our series on food waste. If you haven't already seen, we've got episodes on giving models and packaging waste. Also this episode as a part of a report that we've produced, which you can download, as well as a whole database of research case studies and references on

[00:22:48] And if your business is doing something about the food waste problem, we wanna hear about it. And if you have any case studies or questions to share, let us know.

[00:22:56] Thanks for listening to The Business Pickle.

Using business as a force for good can be quite the pickle. While you want to balance profit with purpose, real-world challenges get in the way. We don’t have all the answers at The Business Pickle, but we sure have fun seeking them out.

No lectures or silver bullets. Just lessons learned, research uncovered, and experiences shared by some of the world’s brightest voices on making an impact through business.

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