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Food for thought with Grow Sheffield

That cancelled dinner party, the recipe that went wrong, spontaneous plans to have a meal out; just how much of the food on your weekly shopping list ends up in the bin? Shocking new figures show that one-fifth of the food made globally available to consumers was wasted in 2016 due to overeating, poor production methods, and avoidable waste.

On a more local level, sustainability charity Wrap (Waste and Resources Action Programme) have released research showing that UK households bin 7.3 million tonnes of food each year, costing the average family £700. Of the food wasted, the charity estimates that 60% was still edible at the time of binning, including around 13 billion ‘5 a day’ portions. They also found that avoidable food waste is associated with 17 million tonnes of CO2 emissions - that’s the equivalent of 1 in 4 cars on UK roads.

Enter Grow Sheffield: a collaborative, food-growing network that works with local communities within the city to reduce food waste and promote urban harvests. It’s a multifaceted approach to food growing and distribution, as project co-ordinator Vanessa Senger explains: “We want to encourage people to grow and harvest their own food in their own communities. It’s about making sure people have the confidence to do it, which a lot of the time they don’t when actually people have more skills than they think they have.”

“One of our projects is called Community Growers. It provides places where people can come and learn so they can then spread that knowledge around their own communities. The Abundance Project is another major part of Grow Sheffield, and what we do here is harvest the waste in the city so sometimes it may be on the wayside or in public places or people’s gardens.

“We harvest it, distribute the good stuff to people in the communities who might not normally have fresh fruit and then the rubbish stuff either gets juiced or turned into chutney. So we make our own juice, we make our own chutney and preserves and now we grow our own trees.”

The not-for-profit organisation has been run by a core team of volunteers like Vanessa since 2007, who co-ordinate projects within the community including growing workshops, networking opportunities and events like Allotment Soup which promote local, independent and ethical food. As their tenth anniversary draws near, Vanessa reflects on the challenges and successes of the previous decade.

“The most challenging part”, she says, “is getting community involvement to a point where you can get organised without being too formal about it. And also, of course, getting the money and funding to do it! Because we’re not a charity we’re not open to subscriptions from the public, although we occasionally get some donations.

“In a small way, my proudest moment has been with one lady who was from a social housing estate we worked on many years ago. She was lacking in confidence but came every week and one week said “ Oh, I took home those tomatoes we grew and cooked with them and they were lovely.” It was that one moment - such a small but lovely thing.”

With similar networking projects cropping up all over the country, Vanessa has advice for budding urban gardeners: “Start small - don’t be too ambitious. Find a window ledge which has some sun and grow things there using a little box or pot. Salad vegetables are very easy to do, and so are herbs - just give it a whirl! There are TV programmes to watch, the internet to give you ideas or you can find a local group like Grow Sheffield. There are loads of urban gardening projects you can join now.”

With community growers who join projects like Grow Sheffield increasingly reaping the nutritional benefits of eating fresh, locally sourced food and saving money, the growth of crowdfunded waste reduction projects, sustainability schemes and even apps are enabling consumers all over the UK to harvest waste groceries with increased ease.

The Real Junk Food Project which sources expired but edible food from supermarkets to serve in its Pay As You Feel cafes, recently opened a Food Waste supermarket in Leeds where consumers can pay for items by donating money or their time. Operations manager Keith Annal said bread is huge waste item, as supermarkets "make [..] and then chuck out so much of it." Find your nearest Pay As You Feel cafe here.

A similar social enterprise supermarket, Nifties, opened in Dover in 2016, selling reduced supermarket goods that are damaged or have a short shelf life for between 5p and £1. The owners say sales have prevented a staggering 64 tonnes of food wastage simply during the period June 2016 to November 2016.

Crowdfunded schemes are also springing up over the country. In February 2016, £2,000 was fundraised to pay for a communal waste fridge in Brixton, London, which enables locals and food traders to donate leftover food to other families. A similar scheme in Frome, Somerset, has seen 5,000 food items saved from the bin in the four months since the fridge was launched.

Organisations making the most of industry production inefficiencies are also being established. Darlington-based organisation Hooba is reducing food waste by promoting vegetarian and vegan substitutes that are traditionally scrapped during production. They recently teamed up with the YMCA to run food workshops with young people and former offenders.

In addition, the Gleaning Network - a rural food waste operation - mobilises volunteers to collect leftover or unsuitable produce after harvest and deliver it to charitable partners, enabling farmers to dispose of waste product for free. Between 2012 to the end of 2016, 288 tonnes of produce have been saved which is equivalent to more than three million portions of fruit and vegetables. Over 1,500 volunteers are currently signed up to the scheme.

Schools are also getting in on the act, and taking the opportunity to work with local charities and educate children on food waste. Leeds-based food redistribution initiative Fuel For School initially provided 600 local school children with breakfast each day using surplus supermarket stock heading for landfill, but organisers have now rolled out the scheme to 10,000 children from schools in Leeds, Bradford, Sunderland and Doncaster.

Food waste apps like Olio are also enabling people to share surplus groceries with other locals. Simply upload a picture, add a description and when and where the item is available for pick up.

With so many local and digital resources at hand, reducing household waste is increasingly easy and beneficial for your diet, food budget and local community.

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