Ditching the supermarket run for neighbours’ leftovers? When it comes to food sharing, our author still takes some convincing. But many initiatives that tackle food waste have come a long way, making sharing in the food arena more mainstream and professional, slowly changing our eating habits. But the question remains: Is this a legit lifestyle choice – and will it leave us hungry (for more)? Aida Baghernejad decides to give it a try.
There I am, standing in the street, clutching half a cucumber. My entire first day’s haul? Somehow, I’m not so sure my food sharing experiment is such a great idea. A week from now, my outlook will have changed. But let’s start at the beginning.
According to the UN, around one third of the world’s food production ends up as waste – and in the UK, 70% of this can be attributed to private households. Although I love to cook, I occasionally catch myself chucking stuff into the organic waste bin. An unscheduled restaurant stop, a weekend trip or simply too much overtime … and the bread goes stale, the veggies limp, while apples gather mould in the fruit bowl.
Food sharing platform Olio promises to change all that. Since its 2015 debut in London, more than 400,000 users around the world have signed up for the sharing service. On Olio, I can upload offers of unwanted food, see what others in my area are sharing, post requests and swap insights with like-minded souls.
So, I decide to sign up – but the initial results are pretty sobering: Scrolling through the offers in my South-London neighbourhood, I come across plenty of curiosities (including an already opened jar of olives), but almost no fresh fruit or veg. “Most offers find a new home within an hour”, says Anne-Charlotte Mornington, one of Olio’s first employees. “Some use Olio to get food worth 700 pounds a month – I think they’re basically living off the app already.”
Here we go
Day 1. Someone offers half a cucumber. “I hate this vegetable”, the helpful description adds. When I arrive at the stated address after a few detours, I am greeted by a young woman clutching a bag and welcoming me with a huge smile. “I’ve started using the app regularly and check in every few hours,” she says. Is food sharing the new Instagram, then? She uses Olio to find food she likes and to share the unwanted spoils lingering in her recipe box. Like this cucumber.
While I appreciate the free and fresh find, I am miles away from a balanced meal. So, I decide to head to Borough Market, one of London’s oldest market halls. After the market winds down, stall holders swap their leftover wares. Maybe there’s something in it for me? I spot bakery staff shoving thirty loaves into large plastic bin liners. Unsold bread is simply thrown out. Every day. While I am still reeling from this, another trader hands me a baguette and a focaccia. I guess food sharing doesn’t need an app.
From veggie pulp to business model
Since I want to know more about food sharing, I decide to meet a young entrepreneur who puts yet another spin on the trend. For her company Nibs etc., Chloë Stewart collects waste from juice vendors – the squeezed fibrous pulp. “Not many people work with the pulp. But once I started experimenting with it, I realised that it’s pretty taste – and brimming with healthy fibre!”
With her model, juice producers have less waste to deal with (and lower disposal costs) and Chloë turns the plant-based pulp into cakes, crackers and muesli she then sells on the net, at markets or in selected stores. An obvious win for all involved.
While we’re fetching beetroot mash destined for tasty brownies, a stall holder dumps a box of lettuces. They’re still fresh, but no longer crisp enough to be sold. Why not help myself? Besides a few, slightly wilted outer leaves the lettuces are absolutely fine to eat. Should they be destined for the dump? I take a bunch – and lunch is safe.
Back home, the fresh leaves join the cucumber, the focaccia heads for a quick round in the oven, I prepare a vinaigrette … and all of a sudden I’m facing a simple, but fresh and – most of all – delicious lunch. If I hadn’t acted, all of this would have gone to waste. Time for a quick reality check – do I throw too much away? Am I too lazy or picky to give not-so-perfect vegetables a chance?
In Germany, foodsharing.de is already a fixture. People use the platform to organise the public distribution of leftover goods from supermarkets, local retailers and restaurants. Public cupboards or fridges for fair sharing dot many cities. Here, collected products can be stored and picked up.
The People’s Fridge in the London district of Brixton is similar – at least in theory, since I always leave empty-handed. The project is located in the Pop Brixton container village, nestling between street food stalls, social organisations and a community farm where the first shoots of Swiss chard are just starting to show..
The People’s Fridge is also where employees of the ubiquitous Pret A Manger sandwich chain drop the day’s unsold goods. The company collaborates with Olio: Volunteers fetch unsold sandwiches, salads and baked goods to be shared via the app. But so far, too few companies are ready to rethink their strategies.
“People have been scouring our rubbish to resell the sushi platters and salads at the nearest street corner”, a store employee reveals while cleaning up. “But if someone asks nicely, we’re usually happy to let them take a meal or two.” I do just that and end up with sushi and salad. As I am just about to leave, she calls me back. “Hang on, take this juice – it’s my favourite flavour!”
One person’s waste …
Day 3. It’s Saturday, the perfect day for a weekend farmer’s market. Today I don’t only want to benefit from food sharing, but also give something back. At a vegetable stall I ask whether I can take some unsold produce for sharing. Although many stalls cooperate with non-profits that collect vegetables, bread and other food for distribution to those in need, volunteers aren’t always available. While I am handed a huge box of vegetables, a nearby stall adds three loaves of bread. “I could lose my job for this”, the young bakery employee reveals. But he simply can’t deal with the amount of bread that gets thrown out every day.
Back home, I take pictures of all the products and upload everything to the app. Within just a few minutes, I get messages from interested people, unfortunately also including a troll who seems to enjoy insulting and threatening me. Although he is blocked straight away, it wasn’t exactly a fun experience.
… is another person’s dinner
Once the other users arrive for pick-up, I’m glad I haven’t deleted the app: The community is fascinating. After just a few days I’m all in, taking part in discussions, picking up food and distributing the leftovers. Throughout the week I meet IT specialists who distribute café leftovers in their spare time, authors and students.
Dance teachers with two kids in tow pop by for two celeriac roots or a loaf of bread, just-married couples offer leftover sausage rolls from their wedding – and there’s even a couple from my home region of Hesse who prefer giving food away rather than wasting it.
Yet not all of Olio’s users have a choice. “Many are skirting the poverty line or even below it”, according to Anne-Charlotte. “Most of them work, but still find it hard to afford fresh food. Food sharing doesn’t stigmatise them.”
Day 7. I finish my self-experiment with what’s probably the best-known form of sharing: I bake a bread pudding from the week’s stale sourdough bread and invite my friends to tuck in. My conclusion after a week of food sharing? Using it as your sole source of food takes a lot of time, stamina and organisational wizardry. I have rarely spent this much time traveling in the city or swapping so many messages with strangers.
But I also got to know many people from my neighbourhood and had some really interesting talks. The experiment prompted me to drop a few of my preconceptions and review my own consumption habits. Now, I see my surroundings in a new light – what a café chucks out at closing time could easily be another person’s dinner. Food sharing is a great way to fight food waste – and to try something new. So, go on and give it a try!