Jayne Dowle: We need a war on waste to combat food bank queues

TIME does funny things between Christmas and New Year. Is it really only a week since we were opening presents and feasting on turkey and plum pudding? And nothing illustrates the strange effect of this seasonal time lapse more than the contents of a fridge.

Reducing food waste in 2018 is Jayne Dowle's New Year resolution. What is yours?

If yours is anything like mine, it’s probably still stuffed with all kinds of items left over from last week’s festivities. I’ll be having a rummage in there later to see what I can cook up into a pie or an omelette.

I won’t throw anything away until it is literally crawling out of the fridge on its own legs. I was instructed in the ways of kitchen management by a grandmother who was born into poverty and worked in service as a cook through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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Grandma Gladys made it clear that nothing whatsoever should be wasted. She would be proud of me as I stand there with the hand-held food processor, pulsing stale crusts into breadcrumbs to go in the freezer for making stuffing in the dark days of January.

My frugal attitude amuses those who live with me no end. As well as stepping over my mountain of carrier bags and swerving to avoid the discarded Christmas tree waiting to be chopped up for firewood and compost, they are used to finding tins at the back of the cupboard with “best-before” dates going back two years. My family may turn up their delicate noses, but I sneak those baked beans out to use when they are not looking and no one is any the wiser.

I was interested then to learn about the East of England Co-op. The biggest independent retailer in East Anglia has become the first supermarket to start selling food that’s past its “best-before” date in a concerted drive to reduce food waste.

Other supermarkets, take note. There is far too much squeamishness about food these days if you ask me. Sorry to sound irresponsible, but I barely bother to look at any kind of best-before or sell-by dates. If it smells okay and there’s no mould on it, I give it a go.

I can’t dispose of edible food when so many people in this country haven’t even got enough to eat. The Trussell Trust, an organisation which campaigns to reduce hunger in the UK, says the use of food banks is reaching unprecedented levels. Between April and September last year, 586,907 three-day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis. This represents a 13 per cent increase on the same period in 2016.

It’s not just my guilty conscience about poverty. I also worry about the environment. Food waste in landfill produces large amounts of methane, which in turn contributes to global warming and environmental damage. I’m not just talking about bin bags full of household rubbish. If you imagine all the supermarkets in the world and all the food they discard every day, you begin to get a sense of the bigger picture.

And I am concerned about the example I’m setting to my children. It’s plain that food security will become one of the biggest political issues of this century.

Yet how many of us take the ready supply and distribution of bread, meat and eggs for granted? I want my son and daughter to know how to make ends meet should the supermarket shelves one day fall empty.

For now, I know that I should be very grateful that the Food Standards Agency takes such painstaking care to ensure that our health and wellbeing is not compromised, but things can go a bit far. There’s too much fixation on the date stamped on a box or packet, and even more confusion about the different kinds of labelling on a pack. I’ve seen sausages bearing two or three different edicts to the customer.

It’s no wonder so many people panic and so much food is binned on a whim. Wrap, the Government’s waste advisory body, says £13bn worth of edible food is thrown out in Britain every year. This includes items and produce which could be used up as leftovers or donated to those in need.

The East of England Co-op is now selling tinned goods and dried food such as pasta, crisps and rice for a nominal 10p once they reach their best-before date. The offer will not apply to fresh and perishable foods, however, which still carry a “use-by” date indicating when a product is safe to eat. Roger Grosvenor, the company’s joint chief executive and head of its retail division, hopes that up to two tonnes of food waste will now be saved every year.

The good news for us is that simplification of labelling in general is under way under guidance from Wrap, the Food Standards Agency and the government department Defra, which advocates the use of only one date on a pack in order to reduce consumer confusion.

Meanwhile, I’m off to look in the back of my fridge to see what I can rustle up for lunch. Don’t worry, I’ll draw the line at a sprout omelette.