Sticking Plasters and Moral Dilemmas

We started REfUSE in 2015 after discovering vast amounts of perfectly edible food in supermarket bins, and learning about the cost of this waste to our planet (watch this video for more, or hear from our Nikki here). It is clear now more than ever before that climate change is happening, it affects everyone, from hosepipe bans to sea level rise to wildfires. However, the poorest and most vulnerable are, and will continue to be, hit the hardest. Whether elderly people coping with heat waves, price hikes on essential living costs, or tens of millions of refugees forced to leave their homelands because of increasingly ferocious and frequent weather-related disasters.

Food waste is an environmental problem, caused by a broken food system, and we’re doing all we can to combat it.

The cost of living crisis in the UK this winter is also hitting the most vulnerable first. In our communities of County Durham, resilient and resourceful though we are, we’re facing real challenges as we work out how to manage our bills, debt and essential costs, and many are looking to charities for support.

We believe food poverty is a social problem, caused by a deeply flawed political and economic system, and we’re asking our government and leaders to combat it.

The narrative pushed by our government, supermarkets and the media is that a simple solution might be redirecting any food surplus to feed those in food poverty: a win-win. And many would, understandably, think that’s what we do! However, we strongly believe that food waste is an environmental issue, and food poverty is a social issue: you can’t apply one problem to the other – if you do, it is a sticking plaster at best. It allows supermarkets and food producers to skirt around working to solve the fundamental  issues that cause waste and surplus, like labelling and marketing, logistics, supply management and food grading standards. It also entrenches an unequal culture of “second-class food for second-class citizens”, with a lack of dignity and choice for people who are most in need of nutritious food. As many who have eaten with us at restaurant nights, through our catering or picked up a Waste Not Box, this is incredible quality, perfectly edible food that is for everyone: whether it’s King Charles or our friends experiencing homelessness, we just want to stop it going to landfill.

Without doubt, this is a hard distinction to push for REfUSE – that our ‘food waste’ projects are not ‘food poverty’ projects. A lot of the work we do crosses lines, and it’s unavoidable they are naturally connected. As we went into lockdown, and as we head towards a winter where hundreds of households around us will struggle to feed themselves healthily, we are morally obliged to make sure that the tonnes of good food coming through our doors goes to feeding and supporting as many as it can. But in the long term, allowing food waste to be redistributed instead of working on systems to prevent it doesn’t lend itself to helping the environmental issue – it almost justifies it. In the same respect, if those who need food are relying on surplus, what happens when that surplus doesn’t exist? We don’t want to build ourselves a business model that is entrenched in this issue, thanking supermarkets for their waste because we’re reliant on it – we want to be putting ourselves out of business!

With all this in mind, we pledge to do the following things this year.

  1. Make sure that our food is nutritious and nourishing for everyone, without judgement, stigma or conditions. Whether you pay £100 or 10p, we won’t ask questions and we will thank you for doing your bit to save precious resources from being wasted.
  2. Never look to build ourselves an “empire” reliant on a problem we hope to abolish. Though we’ll happily support others running projects like ours where they are, we will never open any more REfUSE cafes in County Durham towns.
  3. Work to raise awareness and education about the value of our food, where it comes from and how we can all act as food citizens, making good choices in the shops and learning to waste less in our homes – which will save money, too! Our new schools project, Eat Smart, will reach over 1,600 children in primary schools over the next two years.
  4. Work on other projects that point to a different way of treating and valuing our food, apart from the fragile food system we have currently. Things like our growing project in Grange Villa, work with school allotment clubs and a ‘food preservation club’ where we make things like apple juice, chutneys and ferments from food otherwise headed for landfill.
  5. Work to challenge retailers on their waste: understand where things are going wrong, and along with others like BIND in Newcastle, get ourselves at boardroom tables, asking questions and challenging policies and systems that cause waste.

If you have any questions on all this, or ideas and feedback for REfUSE, we’d love to hear from you!

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