I first became aware of waste at school and then while working in the food industry - at large sports events, at social events, even at friends’ houses, huge amounts were being thrown away. This gave me the idea for starting my own company, ChicP, in 2017, a hummus business focused on using ‘wonky’ or surplus vegetables to help raise awareness about food waste. My aim was also to bring awareness to the plight of British farmers whose wasted food ‘mountains’ occur when supermarkets not only cancel orders, but insist on ‘perfect’ food for the British shopper. Overseas products, which have travelled miles to appear on our plates, also severely undercut British farmers. The whole cycle is ineffective, non organic, uneconomical, and extremely damaging. We are supposedly trying to lower our carbon emissions, and yet this continues on a huge scale.
The inspiration behind ChicP was my passion to change attitudes to the way we approach cooking and waste. I cooked for families in the UK and all over Europe, predominantly as a private chef, and would often convert leftover vegetable dishes into dips for the next meal. Every day the question would be “what’s the dip of the day Hannah?!” This gave me the idea to produce a healthier sustainable hummus; using raw vegetables and natural ingredients, I was able to make a delicious, healthy nutritious product. I began by buying at wholesale markets in London, collecting their surplus vegetables (huge ‘bins’ filled with vegetables, very few of which were bruised), and, unable to resist large quantities, distributing to neighbours, food charities and friends, who also became the lucky recipients of my new hummus recipes!
Health and safety regulations are still too tight. The rules are disabling and mean cafes, restaurants, food outlets, hospitality events and many more, are unable to distribute their excess food at the end of the day. The inability to sell or give away food that is still edible is a colossal waste; every day, across the country, food is discarded at events, shoots, restaurants, in offices, airports, the list goes on and on.
Catering in large quantities creates problems. Too much choice and over-catering for the numbers expected, result in excessive amounts being thrown away. Any food left out is then unusable, and the packaging too is then further waste.
Retailers too, are responsible for huge quantities of waste. Slightly damaged packaging or labels just past their sell by date are thrown into large bins each night, despite willing volunteers who would gladly distribute this food to the homeless or others in need. Because fresh fruit and vegetables may not look their best, they are also thrown despite being perfectly edible.
We need to be more open minded about shelf life; they are a guideline, not a rule. Manufacturers must be vigilant in ensuring food safety and protecting themselves against recriminations, but ‘sell by dates’ needs to be better understood by us. We all need to use common sense in our eating habits; to recognise that food past it’s ‘sell by date’ is not necessarily ‘off’, that we can eat perfectly healthy food days after the supermarkets stipulate. On the whole, food will last many days after we are expected to throw it away, shelf life is a guideline, not a rule. Supermarkets have to cover their backs; if everyone were to understand this, it would have a huge impact on our waste and ultimately on the environment.
At every point in the food chain there is wastage. Farm food thrown for aesthetic reasons, bruised bananas chucked in huge quantities at wholesale markets, browning strawberries in supermarkets thrown away in bin loads, bruised apples or food with a miniscule amount of mould on the top at home, all this waste occurs on a daily basis. Government can help, as can the advertising industry, and of course the supermarkets themselves, but primarily, education has the most important role to play.
Five Easy ways to be sustainable in the kitchen:
1. Get blending. You can blend virtually everything, from raw food to cooked food – anything, even food on its last legs! This will give it a new lease of life and turn it into something completely different and delicious. You can also add so many ingredients to a food that’s ‘on the way out’, such as spices, herbs, oils, nuts and cheese.
2. Use your freezer. If you're not going to eat it or give it away to a food bank or neighbour, freeze it. Nearly all food freezes (including hummus!)
3. Grab a baking tray. Whether it's meat, fish, plums, carrots or onions, putting it on a baking tray and roasting will increase its shelf life. The bacteria is killed and some delicious goodies are now in the fridge for another few days. I sometimes roast a favourite recipe and then freeze it into batches for lunches.
4. Designate a night a week for using up leftovers. This is often the most fun night to cook! There's no need to buy anything else, get creative, Google what can be done with the ingredients you have or delve into a cookbook. Invite friends over for a truly delicious ‘no-waste’ evening!
5. Only buy what you really need (and as seasonal and local as possible). Use what you have in your kitchen first, then go to the shops only if it’s absolutely necessary. It’s more fun, creative and satisfying cooking from what you have; you’re saving the world’s resources and using up ingredients rather than stock piling.
As a society, we are now becoming more responsible and more positively aware. Covid 19 has changed attitudes, hopefully forever. Also, the recent Extinction Rebellion movement - whether or not you agree with its methodology - has been hugely influential in bringing environmental issues to the political and social forefront of our TV screens and newspapers, and I believe these issues will continue to grow with each new generation.
I have spoken to children in many schools, discussing the topics of food waste and sustainability. I’ve also asked them how they can help influence their parents and teachers to lead more sustainable lives, and how they can also encourage their parents to eat more healthily.
Photographs of Hannah whilst volunteering on a regenerative produce farm.
The children are impressively and admirably engaged. They see that it is their future that needs to be protected and want to make sure the right lifestyle choices are being made by all. They have made brilliant and innovative suggestions such as ‘why can’t we stop throwing away fruit at school that’s going off and instead turn it into smoothies to have at break rather than biscuits!!!!”
Using less electricity and water, less packaging, buying second hand, cycling and walking when possible, sharing car lifts, exploring the UK instead of flying - the list of positive actions is endless, but so many people are not fully engaged as they feel this does not apply to them or do not understand the imminent seriousness of the issue. But with food we can all do something.
We need to change attitudes, to actively ‘Eat better, live better, do better’. It is imperative to ensure that everyone, not just an educated few, are given the facts about our impact on the environment and how a change in habit can profoundly alter negative outcomes. By recognising and admitting our collective and individual responsibility, we can reduce our carbon footprint.
If we start to actively respond and change our habits, the world will eventually be a better place.
Author - Hannah McCollum, Founder and Owner of ChicP