Food is one of the most important drivers of environmental change, in terms of water, land and resource use; greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately climate change. This explains why reducing food waste has been given so much attention by governments and businesses across the world.
Wasting food has never been just an environmental issue as it also raises social questions, especially given rising food prices which has increased the risk of food poverty. It makes no moral sense that tonnes of perishable foods are being thrown away while millions of people go hungry.
Tackling food waste and food poverty together requires us to recognize that these environmental and social issues are interlinked. In the UK alone, about 20 million tonnes of food is wasted annually whilst 4 million people are affected by food poverty.
Food poverty is a critical issue affecting Northern Ireland, especially in Belfast. 5% of the population of Northern Ireland are malnourished and 14% of them are over the age of 65.
“Food poverty is the inability of individuals and households to obtain an adequate nutritious diet, often because they cannot afford healthy food or there is a lack of shops in their area that are easy to reach”
Research carried out by the FSA (Food Standards Authority) found that despite the fact many homeless people are getting enough to eat, the quality of their diet remains poor. A Food Poverty Network has been set up to measure the extent of food poverty across Ireland. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, Food Standards Agency in NI, Safefood and other partners are seeking to develop a coordinated approach to address food poverty in order to inform and influence practice and policy.
The amount of people forced to rely on food banks has risen dramatically in recent years with the use of the system rising faster in Northern Ireland than in many other parts of the UK. According to Trussell Trust (A UK– wide network of food banks working to stop hunger and poverty), a low income is the single biggest reason people turn to food banks. Other reasons include benefit delays and unemployment. One–third of households in Northern Ireland do not have what is generally considered to be the basic necessities.
The number of food banks in the region has increased rapidly and this remains a cause for concern. FareShare Northern Ireland has taken action to tackle food poverty and food waste simultaneously by collecting surplus food from industry and redistributing it to charities and community groups that provide meals to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups such as senior citizens, at risk young people, low income families and homeless people.
There have been several food poverty campaigns across Northern Ireland in various forms, and the introduction of technological innovation in terms of apps to reduce food waste and food poverty is gradually taking form. Food Cloud is an online platform (website and mobile app), which connects businesses with surplus food to charities that need it. The platform has facilitated the distribution of 939 tonnes of food, which would have otherwise gone to waste. Businesses who have food they wish to unload simply upload their details into the app. The charity then receives a text to collect the food. Upon collecting the food, the charity serves it to people in need.
A pilot programme with two SPAR stores in east Belfast helped to gather 140 kilos of food which was made available to food banks, homeless shelters and other charities. Moving forward other organizations such as Food Cycle need to be encouraged in efforts to eradicate food poverty.
There are a number of organisations and apps being developed to tackle food poverty and food waste, but everyone has a role to play…what’s yours?