Despite the amazing work of grassroots organisations, mainstream media attention, and landmark legislative change (like the 2016 French law banning supermarkets from throwing away unsold food before its expiration date), the amount of perfectly good food ending up in landfills across the world continues to grow rather than diminish. So maybe it’s time to approach the problem in a new way, and FareShare, an Australian charity, offers a potential model for doing just that.
FareShare’s mission is simple: to rescue food that would otherwise be thrown away and turn it into delicious, nutritious meals for people who need them. However, the scale on which they do this makes them quite different from your usual food bank or soup kitchen.
The headquarters of FareShare is in Abbotsford, Melbourne, on the fringes of the city’s trendy inner northern suburbs. In the shadow of an old brick brewery, there’s a semi-industrial feel to the area, though the atmosphere inside FareShare is casual and friendly. Dozens of volunteers chat and chop vegetables harvested from FareShare’s own urban gardening plots (one of which is just down the road, behind the train station on a patch of land that used to be an unofficial rubbish dump). In this first kitchen, whatever rescued food happens to be around that day – maybe a whole pallet of chicken rejected by a supermarket because their labels were printed upside-down, or tubs of surplus vegetables farmers couldn’t sell due to a lack of demand – gets made into soups, stews or casseroles in two huge, stainless steel vats.
A professional chef, one of 15-20 paid FareShare staff members, is on site. She is responsible for balancing the flavour and nutritional values of whichever ingredients are on offer to produce healthy meals of seriously high quality. The group of amateur choppers – today’s quota of about 1000 listed FareShare volunteers, behind whom there is a long waiting list – are her only kitchen staff.
‘It certainly beats poaching 900 eggs or making the same 10 dishes every day!’ She says with a smile.
The second kitchen, known as the pastry kitchen, is full of teenage school children. During the afternoon it will be corporate groups who are shaping, rolling and filling the quiches, pies and sausage rolls. These paid sessions for school and corporate groups (totalling about 6,000 people annually) book out as soon as FareShare open them each year.
The refrigerated storage areas and drive-in loading dock at FareShare have the industrial cleanliness and efficient organisation of a well-run factory. Delivery trucks pull in and out throughout the day, collecting meals to be distributed by a range of different charities. The meals, 5,000 of which are made here each day, are individually portioned, many vacuum-sealed.
Unlike a lot of food rescue groups, FareShare have the facilities to process, store and deliver food in accordance with industrial hygiene and safety requirements. For example, smaller groups may be unable to take 300 kg of raw meat approaching its sell-by date from a supermarket because they couldn’t safely collect, deliver, store, cook, or serve it to people in time. FareShare, with industrial blast-chillers and freezers, can keep the protein-rich meat safely for several months, although it will get used in the kitchen long before then.
FareShare operates the Southern Hemisphere’s largest charity kitchen, but their operation is set to become even bigger later this year. In collaboration with Foodbank, FareShare is opening a new kitchen in Brisbane that will be capable of making over 20,000 meals a day. Using fewer volunteers and (if enough philanthropic donors get involved) more automation in the kitchen, FareShare predict their Brisbane site will be cooking 5 million meals a year by 2023.
Such a drastic scaling up of FareShare’s Abbotsford operation offers hope that this model could be adopted elsewhere, on as big or even a bigger scale. Why not? If we can’t seem to change the wasteful and inefficient food supply chains, industrial overproduction, and commercial waste that are the main contributors to roughly a third of the food we produce on Earth being thrown away, why not try and tweak that wasteful system, working within the current industrial structures?
This model doesn’t even need to be restricted to charitable organisations. So efficient and professional is the FareShare model that it has serious potential for economisation. Of course, the fact that FareShare actually affects social change and helps people in need is a major element of their philosophy. But if the model could be modified slightly, still preventing food being thrown away but for the purpose of adding value and selling it for a profit, that could introduce something new to the market and allow for consumer-driven change in the way that organic, free range, and fair trade products have done. It could also make the ridiculous scale of commercial food waste much more visible in our daily lives.
All images by: Adrian Lander, 2017