Closing in on Food Waste

food vegetables wood apple

The Fine Art of Provisioning

When the kids were younger, it happened all the time. One day – no milk, no eggs, no bananas. A week later – far too much milk, eggs, bananas in the house. Because it’s hard to gauge when you’re shopping how much everybody is going to want of a particular thing – and you don’t like to see the kids go without. 

As any food anthropologist or ethnographer of consumer behaviour will confirm, provisioning for the fam is a deep-seated impulse. Parenting often means we show love or perform our sense of responsibility by making sure everyone has what they seem to need. 

There’s a real sense of failure when someone wanders into the kitchen saying they think they’ll have a toasted cheese sandwich – and you’ve run out of bread. And cheese. So you try to have lots of food choices, all the time, which is a bit crazy really, but I know plenty of you know exactly what I mean. 

One minute everybody was scoffing 2 or 3 choc-chip brioches a day, leading to mild stockpiling on my part. And then, bugger me, 3 weeks later, everyone was ‘off brioche’ and ‘into mini cheeses’.

A problem in our house – as in many – is that one minute everybody was scoffing 2 or 3 choc-chip brioches a day, leading to mild stockpiling on my part. Those bloody ‘3 for 2’ offers play their own guilty part in this practice. And then, bugger me, 3 weeks later, everyone is off brioche and into mini cheeses. And you’re left nervously checking the use-by date on 2 packs of choc brioches and trying to press them on everyone – even eating the odd one yourself, though you really don’t like or want them. 

But waste, you don’t want waste. So you force the horrible thing down and count it as another familial duty. 

food vegetables wood apple
Photo by Ron Lach on

We have to recognise that our parental provisioning impulses are horribly skewed and played upon by the rhythms and habits of capitalism. What in Paleolithic society would be a simple set of gathering and foraging processes – with some very occasional hunting – becomes, in late Capitalism, a highly complicated set of consumer practices. We’re also all encouraged to feel like we want what we want and we want it now; and our kids are usually not yet savvy enough to understand the manipulation in this, much less to appreciate the benefits of self-denial or deferred gratification. 

These days, I’ve got tougher. Setting my face firm, I breezily announce, ‘Yup, sorry, there are no crackers, we’ll buy some on Friday’ or even, ‘We’ll be finishing up that leftover cauliflower cheese tonight’.  

The Grand Derailment that is Holiday Season

But Christmas. Christmas! 

Who, among those us who enjoy food security, can honestly tell me that they got through the orgy of over-consumption, provisioning-anxiety and supermarket pure bastardy (deliberately arousing anxiety about shortages, offering apparent discounts, endlessly bringing in new and enticing products) without ending up on Dec 27th with stuff they did not want in the house? Who wasn’t rifling through the fridge checking ‘use by’ dates by Dec 29th? 

Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you can’t help but get drawn into the shopping, when those tubs of Twiglets appear in great tree-like pyramids and the rhythms of food advertising hasten towards a sense of urgency.

We read about food banks, hungry families, people eating cheap junky food and giving it to their kids too, and then we feel terrible about those overstocked mini cheeses in the fridge. 

This emotion-laden division between people who need support for their provisioning and those who do not is part of the story. Lately, there’s recognition of the unhelpful nature of this distinction and attempts are being made to loop the circles of community back together and take out the shame on both sides. Guilt and shame about food waste among the well-provisioned is the mirror of the shame and guilt felt by families who struggle to feed themselves properly. When we think of ourselves as neighbours and as a local community, it brings us back together as one group handling a shared issue – uneven food distribution. 

The OLIO app

Rachel’s post on Nextdoor was the first time I’d noticed OLIO: an app aimed at reducing waste and sharing our surpluses.  She was announcing that she had picked up several crates of oranges and was giving them away free. 

Picked up several crates?  From where? How did this happen? 

I wanted Rachel’s story and that led me to some heartening news about how our local food habits are shifting.

Over lockdown I was working from home, I wasn’t used to things being so quiet, so I had the radio or TV on as background noise, and that’s when I first heard about the OLIO website. 

The Olio app

Like a lot of people, I’d had a clear-out during lockdown. Usually, I’d have taken that stuff to a charity shop, but they were all closed. Like me, lots of people were having a lockdown clear-out and people were putting stuff on the OLIO app and getting it shifted. OLIO is just like an app version of Worthing’s FreeUp page on FB, really, but it’s not very well known yet in our area. 

Mmm, if you look at London, it’s really widespread there. 

Yeah – we need to get more people on there. 

So, I started with that – the clear-out. OLIO has a food and a non-food side. In lockdown, I know many people were on furlough and were worried about bills and about food. The app was helping that situation. So I started to get into the food side, too, and then I became a ‘Food Hero’ 

What’s that, then? 

If you have a bit of free time, you can register to be one of the people that go to collect the supermarket donations and redistribute them. 

I thought all that supermarket surplus went to food banks? 

Supermarkets, they have surplus food they can’t sell, maybe the date’s gone over. Their first port of call for keeping it out of landfill is to offer it to charities, or redistribution services like FairShare, East Worthing Community House, Worthing Food Foundation, Littlehampton Community Fridge – all the food banks and so on. 

Littlehampton Community Fridge – open to everyone

But then there’s often still more – more stuff than the charities can take and use. That’s when they can send it out into the community using OLIO and the Food Hero scheme. 

I’m impressed that Rachel works, has kids, and still finds time to do this. How does the Food Hero thing work? 

A Saturday Morning Hero

I usually do just Saturday mornings. I go to the supermarket I’ve been allocated, collect stuff, distribute it to the food banks, put the rest up onto the app, and it goes. There’s 4 of us who look after Findon Tesco, it’s just a morning’s work sorting the stuff out. 

Right, so the surplus of the surplus makes its way into the community, once foodbanks have taken what they can use. 

You see, OLIO isn’t about food poverty, it’s about stopping landfill and food waste. So with the app, there’s no limit to what people can pickup. 

Yes, I know some foodbanks have a ‘5 items only’ rule. And then, I’ve heard that some food banks have the idea of it being a 6 week short-term support, and expect people to stop using them after 6 weeks.  

Yes, well it’s people who don’t need or use foodbanks who are making up these rules, they have no idea. I’ve had times of struggle, I know how helpful it can be to be able to pick up a few extras or treats. 

OLIO is great because it’s a doorstep thing, it’s almost stealth mode

OLIO is great because it’s a doorstep thing, it’s almost stealth mode, it’s very discreet. And you’re completely in control of it all, via the app. And then, there’s no embarrassment – a lot of people feel too ashamed to visit food banks.

Totally. Or wouldn’t be sure if they were eligible, or something. 

And those of us with too many mini cheeses in our fridges feel ashamed about that, too. Being able to put them up on the app for anyone to pick up is a discreet way of dealing with that over-shopping. 

The thing is, the OLIO app is about reducing waste, not about food poverty,  it’s all about reducing landfill.  

Yes, that’s brilliant. So there’s no rules, no stigma on either side, it’s just about getting food back into the community that would otherwise go to waste? 

Yeah – you can’t go over a ‘use by’ date, but you can put up stuff that’s ‘best before’. 

The app continues to expand categories. 

The thing I’m excited about right now is the home-made side – people are putting up home-made produce and sharing it. 

Ooh, Don’t think anyone would want my terrible home-brewed kombucha, but yes, being able to share home-made foods is brilliant idea.   

Nobody wants my home-made kombucha

We round off by talking about the encouraging rise in awareness of food waste – and initiatives for reducing it, like Too Good To Go. (That’s the one where you can get a cheap ‘lucky dip’ bag of end-of-the-day food from big chains like Costa and Pret). I know lots of students and young people really rely on that scheme. It’s great to think that we’re not throwing away good food – and that those students aren’t living on chips, but are sometimes eating sandwiches and even salad tubs

Rachel works hard as food hero and loves the OLIO app, but she ends her talk with me right back where I started this reflection – we’ve got to stop buying too much.

I look at my own bizarre collection of stuff to put up on the app – wrong-shape coffee pods bought as a gift; a bulk pack of 24 pork scratchings deemed by all who tried them ‘too salty’; 3 jars of organic sauerkraut from when I thought we were going to get into it, rather than force down just one jar a year; 5 different herbal teas that were bought as experiments – and then nobody liked them. And I know she’s right. But because I’m a food experimenter, and a sucker for a bulk-buy deal (something even the online ‘ethical stores’ tempt me with), it seems likely that OLIO will be with our household for a good while yet. 

If you can take that sodding sauerkraut off my hands, I’ll gladly pick up those cocoa and coconut T-bags – see you on OLIO! 

Published by Caroline

After 30 years as an academic anthropologist doing ethnography in India and the Gulf, Caroline now avoids airports and spends a lot of time walking, cycling or quad skating around for conversations and stories in their adopted home of Worthing. Caroline does public sector consultancy work and project evaluation, using creative research methods. Caroline also writes. Find them on Substack at (Yes, there's a WIP and yes, it's a campus novel, but hang on - it's not a memoir, and it's not a thinly-disguised writeup of people and situations. I studied creative writing, trained, practiced and ** made it all up**).

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