Supermarket stereotypes targeted by food waste campaigners

Gleaning, photo: archive of Zachraň jídlo

The average European throws out around one hundred kilos of foodstuffs every year, and the Czech Republic is no exception. For several years now, an initiative called Zachraň Jídlo or Save Food has been trying to prevent the enormous waste as well as raise Czechs’ awareness of the problem. Along with organising food donations, it attempts to provide information and solutions to all participants in the food chain, from producers to distributors and consumers.

Adam Podhola,  photo: Masha Volynsky
I spoke to one of the founding members of Save Food, Adam Podhola, and I first asked him what led them to establish this initiative three years ago:

“We were sitting in my apartment with a couple of friends and we were watching the documentary ‘Taste the Waste’, which actually shows the scale of the food waste problem. And we all felt really frustrated after watching the scenes where thousands of tonnes of food are being destroyed.

“And that night we decided to do something about it and we started to write a project ‘Feeding One Thousand’. And half a month later we fed one thousand people out of the food that was thrown away in the heart of Prague so it was basically the screening of a documentary that triggered our activities.”

That was in September 2013…

“Yes, exactly.”

Since then your initiative has developed quite substantially. What do you focus on nowadays?

“In fact we only wanted to make a one-day event. We didn’t have any intentions to work further on the issues. At that time, all of us had jobs or we were still at the university.

“After we organised the Feeding One Thousand event and it turned out to be a success, we started to feel responsible to work on this issue. People were asking: What are you going to do next?

“We, as consumers, are actually responsible for almost a half of all food that is being wasted. In the European Union, it is something around 90 million tonnes a year.”

“When you open this debate and caught attention of so many people, we decided to continue. It was also an opportunity to learn something new and maybe really make a difference. So since then we made some smaller events, because most of us worked on a voluntary basis.

“Since this year we managed to get some resources to kick off the ‘Gleaning Project’, which actually brings us to where all the food production starts: to the fields. The aim of the project was to discover how much food is being wasted on that level.”

So how much food is being wasted in the Czech Republic?

“The data is still problematic in this area. We don’t really have specific numbers that we can rely on for the Czech Republic. We have some overall statistics based on some Eurostat data. But if you look at the European parliament survey on food waste from 2013 it says that for instance on the level of agriculture is being wasted around 34 percent of all food which is being produced, which is almost one third.”

So what you did in the Gleaning Project you went to the fields to collect to the leftovers that couldn’t be sold to the supermarkets. What did you do with them afterwards?

“Yes, we got inspired by this British organisation called Feedback, that started this project a couple of years ago, and we thought it was a good way of bringing attention to this level of food waste. So in spring we approached some farmers to ask if we could come and glean with some volunteers over the harvest season.

Photo: Adam Podhola
“So over the summer we went about eighteen times, some hundred people in total, and we were picking up their surpluses, which they didn’t harvest and together with the foodbank we delivered the vegetables to people in food insecurity.”

Why is this food not sold to supermarkets? You have already mentioned that there are some directives…

“This was actually one of the reasons that we also discovered with this project, and that’s why so much of these produce is being left there? So when we started asking the farmers, one of the common things they were saying was that there were some strict cosmetic standards applied by supermarkets, which makes it almost impossible in some cases to sell.

“So this led us to the supermarkets as well. We arranged some meetings over the summer to find out why there are some cosmetic standards that decide about what is good and what is not good.

“What we learned is that there is really not a transparency in this, because when we asked about the criteria, they were not willing to share the information, so this is one of the reasons why a lot of produce is being left out there.”

Would you say that the situation in the Czech Republic is more or less the same as in the rest of Europe?

“If I look for example at the UK, where they launched this project, or in the other countries, it looks pretty much the same. We are still lacking some serious surveys or data for the Czech Republic, which does not allow us to really compare.

“In spring we approached some farmers to ask if we could come and glean with some volunteers and together with the foodbank we delivered those vegetables to people in food insecurity.”

“But we have just recently learned that the Ministry of Agriculture is preparing some survey for the next two years that should track the whole food chain from farm to fork to see how much food we actually waste. So this is really good news and it could help us to understand the scale of food waste in the Czech Republic.”

What was the reaction of the farmers? You said they were a little bit suspicious at the beginning of the project. Are they willing to carry on in the future?

“We hope so, and so far we heard some feedback from them that they were actually really happy about it. When you invest so much time, money and effort into your job, and then you watch it to rot in the field for some stupid reasons, it is really sad.

So in this case they know that their produce can at least end up with someone who doesn’t have enough resources. I think it is some kind of remedy for them as well. So it went really well and we were actually really nicely surprised.”

You have also used some of the vegetables that you have gleaned in your latest project, which is called The Wonky Soup. Can you tell me more about it?

“Yes. We decided that we wanted to demonstrate that the produce that is being left in the fields is still perfect and together with our chef we transformed it into three delicious soups that we served for free at the National Theatre in Prague.

We also gave people the information about how much food is wasted at the level of agriculture and maybe some little tips and hints what all of us can do with that so we used this event as a catalyst to talk about what we found over the summer in the fields and maybe that we can start talking and doing something about that.

Gleaning,  photo: archive of Zachraň jídlo
So what can we do on a daily basis?

“This is actually also one of the sad things because us, consumers, we are actually responsible for almost a half of all food that is being wasted. In numbers in the European Union, it is something around 90 million tonnes a year, which is really a lot.

“So we can be more creative with the leftovers that we have at home which are still perfect to eat, so we are preparing some recipes out of leftovers that are still delicious.”