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A taste for reducing food waste

In his most recent Budget the chancellor announced further spending cuts, leaving many hard-pressed local authorities wondering where the savings will come from.

One often overlooked source of savings is food waste. The public sector currently spends more than £2bn a year on food and catering services across central offices, health, defence, schools and higher education. In fact, the Government as a purchaser represents 5.5% of total food service sector sales.

WRAP estimates that by 2016, food waste could cost the public sector an estimated £150m. I believe that up to 50% of this cost could be saved by adopting a co-ordinated minimisation strategy.

I am not alone in this view; food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart said: “Reducing food waste is a no-brainer. Apart from the benefits to people and planet, there is also a huge opportunity for the public sector to realise a real financial return by cutting food waste in schools, hospitals and elsewhere.”

Research by WRAP shows that food waste is costing the education sector £250m, even adjusting for private education. English primary schools were found to generate 55,408 tonnes of food waste during a school year and secondary schools 24,974 tonnes. The same study found that most of it was avoidable.

WRAP also estimates that the Ministry of Defence and prisons combined produces over 68,000 tonnes of food waste at a cost of £112m each year, including food procurement, labour utilities and waste management.

Meanwhile, an Observer study of NHS data found that hospitals were wasting as much as 82,000 meals each day. The Campaign for Better Hospital Food estimates this figure to be much higher at 400,000 uneaten meals each day. It points to quality as a key factor in such waste being produced across the NHS.

Some of the public sector recognises the huge savings opportunity that cutting avoidable food waste presents. All central Government departments are supporters of the Hospitality and Food Service Agreement, which is voluntary, while the NHS has developed detailed guidance, templates and checklists for hospital teams to manually monitor food waste.

In the education sector, forward thinking establishments like Didcot Girl’s School believe they have cut food waste by more than 75% by making sure the menu is right. Cabbage is sautéed, for example, rather than boiled, sauces are freshly made and a range of vegetables are on offer for pupils with different tastes. The team there keep a close eye on what sells, making sure they are serving children what they want.

The challenge now is driving food waste prevention at scale rather than in individual schools or hospitals where early adopters champion the cause. Effective monitoring is key to driving change throughout the public sector, both from the perspective of understanding where food waste occurs in the production process as well as understanding the customer’s preferences.

Winnow has worked with a number of schools, hospitals and universities which have all found significant value in using its system to measure, benchmark and reduce food waste. Working in kitchens like these, we are able to cut food waste in half, on average, with investment paying back in under 12 months.

In light of the renewed squeeze on public spending, it is now incumbent on policy-makers to ensure that reducing food waste is a strategic priority across education, healthcare and services. Specifically they should:

  • Invest in training for kitchen teams to understand the true cost of food waste to their operations
  • Invest in technology to measure food waste accurately and create meaningful benchmarks across sectors
  • Empower teams to take action within their operations to reduce food waste and reward creativity
  • Continue to support the work of WRAP and other partners to share best practice and information to reduce food waste.

Investing in reducing food waste is a sound business decision for the public sector, and I encourage catering managers and recycling officers to work together to explore the potential for reducing waste and saving money.  

Food waste facts

Public sector food procurement spending across departments breaks down as follows:

School dinners 29%

Further and higher education 29%

NHS hospitals and care homes 25%

Ministry of Defence 11%

Prisons 5%

Departmental head offices 1%

Source: 3RD PSFPI REPORT, 2010

Marc Zornes is co-founder and chief executive of food waste reduction specialist Winnow


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