On Wednesday 16th December, 5,000 people will have a free lunch in Trafalgar Square—made entirely from food that otherwise would have been wasted.
I myself have lived for years on food thrown away by supermarkets. But while researching my recent book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, I was surprised to find that supermarket waste was just one part of the problem. Further up the food supply chain, massive amounts of raw unblemished vegetable, fruit and animal produce are routinely discarded.
Why? Visiting farms around Britain, it is clear that farmers are as miffed about throwing away food as anybody else. Indeed, sourcing food for this event in Trafalgar Square—perfectly good, edible, delicious yet wasted food—has been like pushing an open door. An orchard owner in Kent has just this minute confirmed the dispatch of 5000 apples and pears—all for free. Their sole defect was that they are too big to fit into the standard supermarket crates. Other farmers and packers have delivered free of charge several tonnes of unwanted onions (cracked skins), bananas (deliciously ripe), cauliflowers (tiny flecks of earth), carrots (wonky) and potatoes (with eyes). As one commercial grower put it to me in an email this morning, Feeding the 5000 is a statement that is “long overdue.”
All these people are disgruntled by the amounts of good produce they are forced to discard because of supermarkets’ cosmetic standards, EU legislation, or the retailers’ unfair supply contracts. For a farmer who has spent time, money, labour and natural resources growing a delicious cauliflower or parsnip to then have to throw it away is a distressing and counterintuitive act.
The problem of food waste has a vast global reach of the problem, which is why organisations like Save the Children, ActionAid, the British homeless charity FareShare and This is Rubbish are supporting the Trafalgar Square event. Save the Children point out that the £480 average British households spend on wasted food every year would be enough to lift three malnourished children out of hunger. This is Rubbish are calling for the government to request that supermarkets report how much food they waste in their supply chains; and for firm targets for reducing this. Action Aid points out that food waste is not just a problem in rich countries: in the developing world farmers sometimes lose up to a half of their harvests simply because they lack basic equipment like fruit crates, grain stores and shaded market stalls. Investing in this infrastructure is an easy way of increasing food supplies where it is needed most.
On Wednesday, all of the groups and I will be cooperating in an effort to feed 5,000 people on a hot winter’s lunch made that morning from fresh produce donated by farmers. The vegetables are being peeled and chopped by a team of stalwart volunteers in the kitchens of the magnificent organisation, Food for All, which gives out free food in London to the needy every day of the week. The cooking starts at 4am on Wednesday and the food will be fresh and piping hot in time for lunch. It will then be rushed to Trafalgar Square and distributed fresh and hot from our food tent. Another team of volunteers will be on site to distribute the lunch, and to give away Christmas groceries bags. We’ll be giving away literally tonnes of cauliflowers, parsnips, apples, bananas and grapes to anybody who turns up with an empty shopping bag and an empty stomach. This is Rubbish, meanwhile, will have processed their surplus fruits into a delicious smoothie which they will be serving to passers-by for free.
Meanwhile, on stage, there will be live cooking demonstrations from some of London’s greenest chefs. Thomasina Miers, of the Mexican restaurant Wahaca, in Covent Garden and Canary Wharf, will be demonstrating how to turn leftovers into scrumptious soup. Jeremy Lee, of Blue Print cafe, will be cooking up some unfamiliar parts of animals, currently wasted on an embarrassingly grand scale despite being tasty, nutritious and valuable parts of our gastronomic heritage.
The great thing about the gigantic problem of food waste is that it has relatively simple solutions. It involves nothing more complex than eating food, rather than chucking it away. This means that, for once, our appetites and our consciences can be truly allied. By holding Feeding the 5000 in Trafalgar Square, we aim to involve the general public in the campaign and highlight how wastefulness can be so easily avoided—and perfectly good, surplus food turned into a delicious Christmas lunch.
Feeding the 5,000 is entirely free and open to all comers from 12 till 2pm in Trafalgar Square. Any remaining produce will be taken straight to the FareShare depot where it will be distributed that evening to shelters and soup kitchens across London.