Monday 26 September 2016

Food waste: they have it wrapped up

Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O'Brien's app is changing the way we think about our throwaway culture in Ireland and now they're spreading their revolution to the UK

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Waste not: FoodCloud founders Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O'Brien outside their warehouse in Tallaght. Photo: Tony Gavin
Waste not: FoodCloud founders Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O'Brien outside their warehouse in Tallaght. Photo: Tony Gavin

It was a revolution that was kick-started at a farmers' market in Glasnevin, Dublin. Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O'Brien had begun a socially minded business venture to redistribute unwanted, leftover food to the needy, and in 2012 the first batch of unsold, perishable goods at the popular market were given to local charities to share as they saw fit.

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Fast-forward four years and the duo's social enterprise, FoodCloud, is one of Ireland's primary driving forces in helping to ensure that all manner of foodstuffs that would otherwise have gone to waste find their way to poor and vulnerable people who really need it.

The smartphone app and website that Ward and O'Brien developed after they met while studying at Trinity College Dublin is fundamental to the success story as it allows retailers and others along the food supply chain to upload how much surplus stock they have at any one time and to make this information readily available to local charities.

Every Tesco store in Ireland has access to the app, with an estimated 120 of them using it regularly, and the idea has been embraced in the retailers' UK network, with 900 of its bigger branches accessing the app this year.

"We hope it will be in all 3,000 Tesco stores in the UK by the end of 2017," says Iseult Ward, who was listed as a 'Next Generation Leader' by Time magazine in 2014. "Tesco's CEO, Dave Lewis, was in Ireland and saw FoodCloud in operation here and really liked the idea."

The stamp of approval from the UK's biggest grocer has changed the game for FoodCloud - and greatly boosted revenue for the fledgling business too. Each participating store pays a fee for the FoodCloud service, but as Ward points out, they would bear far greater costs to dispose of the waste.

It was the Tesco on Talbot Street in Dublin that first trialled the app - and it was clear that demand was there. Located in the north inner city near some of the most deprived areas of the capital, the unsold food was gratefully received by numerous charities who distributed it to the disadvantaged residents.

It was a win-win situation because not only were people getting fed, but the local Tesco was being seen to do the right thing while also reducing its waste management bill. Since 2010, retailers have been subjected to tougher waste management laws, such as the prohibiting of dumping of large amounts of biodegradable material.

Ward (25) from Phibsborough, Dublin, says she was reared in a family where food was rarely, if ever, wasted. "I grew up understanding that food was valuable and wasn't there to be just thrown away," she says, adding that some heavily discounted, 'loss leader' items can encourage a culture of waste. "People might think nothing of throwing away a 10c carrot, but it's worth so much more than that when you think about the farmer who grew it and the supply chain that brought it from farm to fork."

It's a sentiment that's echoed by Aoibheann O'Brien. The 30-year-old entrepreneur from Portumna, Co Galway worked in investment banking in London before returning to Trinity to do a masters in environmental science. "Like many other people, I didn't realise quite how much food waste there is on a daily basis," she says, "but over the past five years, the extent of it has started to be reported and it's quite shocking."

On Wednesday, the sheer scale of the global problem was thrown into sharp relief when a major new report showed that 50pc of all food produced in the US is simply thrown away, never to be eaten. Alarmingly, much of the waste is down to consumer demand that fruit and vegetables be 'perfect' and anything that's misshapen, overripe or bruised is rejected by the supermarket buying departments.

Vast quantities of fresh produce grown in the US are left to rot in the field, hauled to landfill or (in best case scenarios) fed to livestock. And, according to the report which was undertaken by the Guardian, much of the crisis is down to unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards.

"It's all about blemish-free produce," Jay Johnson, who ships fresh fruit and vegetables, told the newspaper. "What happens in our business today is that it is either perfect, or it gets rejected. It is perfect to them, or they turn it down. And then you are stuck."

According to US government data, some 60 million tonnes of food worth $160m, is wasted there every year but that's thought to be a conservative estimate. The figure for Europe stands at around 90 million tonnes. There's no reliable data for Ireland, but it is estimated that between 85,000 and 100,000 tonnes are wasted here per annum.

It's a sobering statistic when considered that one in eight Irish people experience food poverty, and where a report last year showed that a third of Irish parents were concerned about feeding their families. Another 2015 report found that one in five children said they went hungry to bed or to school.

In FoodCloud's four years in existence, a small but growing proportion of that waste has been salvaged. Some 1,481 tonnes have been saved in Ireland thanks to the FoodCloud app and, Ward says, that figure amounts to 3.2 million meals.

The capacity to handle more quantities of food has increased thanks to cold-storage warehousing operated under the Bia Foods Initiative, a FoodCloud sister company headed up by O'Brien, and this week FoodCloud announced that 1,000 meals would be delivered in Cork every week through its Cork Food Rescue Production.

Both FoodCloud founders believe Ireland's international reputation for quality food production can go hand in hand with a commitment to cut back waste dramatically.

Other EU countries have stolen a march on the issue, with France introducing stringent legislation earlier this year which prohibits supermarkets there from throwing away food. Heavy penalties are imposed on transgressors and already, in a matter of months, it's become standard practice for the French retail giants to pass leftover food to charities.

At present, Denmark is seen as the EU's shining light when it comes to combating food waste, thanks to its culture of community food banks, 'waste kitchens' and pop-up supermarkets where customers can fill bags of unwanted vegetables for the equivalent of €2 apiece.

Despite the lead taken by both the French and the Danes, O'Brien is determined that Ireland can one day be the model that all other countries look to. "There has to be a willingness to cut waste at all levels of the supply chain, and that includes the consumer at the end," she says, "and I believe that there's an expectation now among many people that food won't be wasted at any point.

"People have to think differently when they shop, to be clever about what they buy, and to buy what they need." And, she says, putting bruised bananas into the shopping basket demonstrates a willingness to eat fruit and vegetables that would not be considered 'perfect'. If such items keep getting rejected, she argues, is it any wonder that the big retailers will only stock the optimum ones?

Tesco is the blue-chip client, but others, such as Aldi, are coming on board and there is no shortage of smaller clients too. "Whether you're an egg farmer in West Cork or a distribution centre in Dublin, redistributing waste food can help people who really need it," O'Brien says, "and we see proof of that every day."

"It's not just about feeding the hungry," Ward says. "Food is a social thing that helps bring people together." FoodCloud has helped charities such as women's refuges and, she says, the savings they make on such meals can be channelled elsewhere.

"Stopping food waste can have more far-reaching benefits than simply feeding people but that, of course, is the primary concern."

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