The Great British Waste Menu got me thinking about food waste.Not that I watched the programme, but I gather it involved a group of celebrity chefs who cook up some dishes,reputedly from food products which had been thrown away.Though I've no doubt that there would be vast quantities of waste food available for them to cook with,call me a cynic, but I bet the products they actually used were procured from the supermarkets and weren't actually sourced from the bins.If that is what they did I'm impressed.
Thinking about the masses of food thrown away both in homes and businesses made me think about the way we run our own business.
It may surprise you to learn that we have very little waste.
There are a few simple reasons why this is the case.
We have a small seasonal menu which changes daily depending on what is available.Keeping the menu seasonal means that products which are plentiful at particular times of the year are used,not wasted.It also means that you are using products when they are at their best and freshest.Changing the menu often also means there's no temptation to stock pile items in large quantities,once something is sold out its substituted with something different.
We buy small amounts of each item from small local suppliers who make daily deliveries.Buying small amounts means we never over order as next delivery is never far away.
We only buy what we need.If its not on the menu we don't buy it.Therefore there's never anything languishing unused at the back of the fridge.There are no impulse buys.
We need to make the business sustainable/make a profit.
We work to a budget therefore minimising on waste is fundamental to the success of the business.Using local suppliers means you have a rapport with the people you are buying from so they can advise you of good value items/things to avoid.This is a two way benefit.For example,our butcher supplies meats from his own farm and having a glut of Lamb chops last week which he needed to sell,asked us to put them on the menu,which we did at a good price.Problem solved.
If you think about it what I've described above is the typical household scenario of maybe 30-40 years ago and beyond.
If you applied the same principles to a modern day household food waste in this country would be significantly reduced.
There was a time when everyone's mother prepared and cooked food from scratch.This was the norm.The kitchen was the focal point of the house with everyone subconsciously absorbing the expertise that would enable them to recreate this in homes of their own.Sundays roast chicken carcass was made into soup for Monday.Bacon bones were free from the butcher and also made the most delicious soup.People lived within a budget.The accessibility of easy credit has taken away the urgency for careful menu planning.
Over the last few years in our local town we have lost:a fishmonger,two greengrocers,two butchers,a gentlemen's outfitters and various other typically provincial shops.
They've been replaced by value frozen food stores,a host of charity shops(enjoying zero rating status)and various beauty salons and gyms.All convenience or image orientated businesses.As I write this I cant believe that I've actually counted up a total of fourteen hairdressing salons and seven charity shops in a small 'market' town which now has no dedicated greengrocery shop.
Lets dispel some myths.How many times have you heard the following:
I cant afford to shop local its too expensive/I don't have time to trail around two or three different shops when I can buy everything under one roof.
Since we've had the pub my household expenses have been drastically reduced.That's not because we eat from the menu,its because I can plan what I want for the next day and have it delivered accordingly.Therefore I don't buy anything extra.I'm not doing a weekly shop in a large supermarket and buying what I think I might need and invariably buying extra in case we run short.Nor am I buying products which I will never use because its only a pound more to have two.Invariably this item will end up binned.
I'm not saying I never shop in the supermarket but I avoid buying fresh foods there.My one visit per week still usually involves an unnecessary purchase,but nowadays its usually a book.
As far as time goes,I defy anyone to spend less time buying two or three items in a supermarket and not being distracted by the other wares on sale.I've never ever come out of a supermarket and only purchased what I went in for.Walking around our local Tesco,then queueing at the inevitable checkout jam takes far longer than a quick visit to two or three specialist shops.
Supermarkets have been blamed for the requirement for producers to supply aesthetically pleasing fruit and vegetables which results in misshapen products or items which don't meet new stringent size guidelines being discarded.
This is a consumer driven trend which the supermarkets have gladly met.Its also something the self serve situation has propagated,who doesn't pick up their bag of grapes/oranges/broccoli and choose the best looking examples.Its an example of society's preoccupation with image.Along with the unnecessary plastic/polystyrene packaging designed to display everything to its best advantage thus creating more waste.Gone are the days when you visited your local greengrocer and were handed the items in an environmentally friendly brown paper bag or even better had the items simply dropped into your bag unadorned except for their own custom made skins,perfect to retain freshness.Or the fishmonger(or even fish and chip shop) and had your purchases wrapped in newspaper.
The introduction of Use by/Best before dates has also contributed massively to waste.A best before date is a guideline,but most foods reaching best before will be discarded.This includes items such as vegetables and fruit.Its easy to tell if a piece of fruit or a vegetable is OK to eat.Feel it and smell it,then eat it.
Its easy to blame the supermarkets,for the demise of the local specialist shop but the reason they weren't commercially viable was not because the supermarkets forced them out its because they weren't supported by consumers.
The masses demand increasingly more choice and more convenience.They want the option of eating strawberries in December and celeriac in June.
Society is moving away from a close relationship with the food we eat ever more towards convenience and a detached relationship and understanding of food provenance and preparation.
With ever more convenience products from complete meals to vegetables in washed format consumers are further distanced from food as a raw ingredient.Convenience demands washed salad leaves, ready chopped vegetables,cooked potato dishes,vegetable medleys all ready to microwave.Every possible ingredient can be purchased prepared ready for consumers to throw together in the semblance of a home cooked dish at the last minute.I suppose this is what happens in commercial restaurants.With the exception that the chef/cooks have actually pre prepared the ingredients themselves.
My own children having been brought up around food are quite comfortable with preparing food for themselves.Not so many of their friends.
This situation is not helped in school where the characteristic detachment to basic food contact seems to be prevalent.At Middle School during Food Technology classes use of knives was for Health and Safety reasons precluded(heaven forbid the little darlings cut themselves).Ingredients were prepared at home and taken into school in handy little pots ready to be combined to form the finished dish.Cling filmed or wrapped in foil.More waste.
In my school days an onion,carrot or potato were flung into a bag at the last minute,no effort involved.
One of the first things we learnt was how to dice an onion,peel and chop vegetables and other fundamental skills required to cook and I can't ever remember anyone losing a digit.
One of my children opted to take food Technology as a subject at GCSE and at A level.The requirement to take pre chopped prepared ingredients into school continued.Reputedly because timetable constraints did not allow these things to be done in school.I wondered how many mothers were at home preparing their son/daughters ingredients for the next day.When it came to assessments these skills had to be observed by the teacher.When son's report came home the Food Technology teacher noted he had 'a high degree of manual dexterity'.I felt quite proud, I wondered what skill he had shown to deserve this accolade.When I overheard mothers extolling the virtues of their son/daughters academic achievements I felt quite smug with the knowledge.
At the open evening the meaning of the phrase was revealed.
HE COULD DICE AN ONION,CHOP VEGETABLES AND HANDLE PASTRY.
How depressing that these skills which would have been taken for granted in previous generations were actually being lauded.
I began to think that you could actually go through school and choose Food Technology as a subject without ever having to become proficient in any of the practical skills.
Jamie Oliver would have been better advised to instigate some sort of teaching initiative aimed at familiarising children with basic food ingredients rather than the school dinners flop.
The Sensible One starts a degree course in Food and Nutrition in a couple of weeks time.When we visited his University of choice we were impressed with the State of the Art kitchens.One of the prospective students posed a question:
Do we supply our own ingredients?
The response was that all ingredients were included in the course fees.Our attention was directed to the numerous trolleys laden with each individual students required items.I'm hopeful not ready chopped and prepared but am reserving judgement as we were informed that kitchen time was at a premium. As students cooked using pans and utensils etc these were spirited away immediately to be washed and returned by specially employed ladies.
The Sensible One looked delighted.No washing up.How convenient.
On another level,The City and Guilds Chefs qualification was phased out a few years ago to be replaced by The NVQ system.City and Guilds gave every chef a basic grounding in all areas of classic cooking.Including making stocks/sauces from scratch.A couple of years ago when Chef was employed by one of the Big Hotel groups he was asked to take the NVQ assessors qualification in order to formally assess trainee chefs employed, in line with company policy .One of the assessed skills he had to observe was learning to make up a stock.From a packet.He didn't finish the qualification.
It wasn't long before we ventured out into self employment.
But what about the growth in Farmers markets/Farm Shops I hear you say.Surely this reveals a U-turn back to the traditional locally sourced products.
How many true Farm shops are there?Ones that can exist based on the produce that is actually produced on their own farm.Not many.Most need to stock an array of bought in products to attract customers,pretty jars with gingham checked lids,pot pourris and scented candles all specifically produced for the target market,all centrally sourced and distributed country wide.For most,visiting a Farm shop is a destination outing,not a means to buying the weekly shop.A day out.Many wouldn't exist without the tea room or other outside attraction.I'm not saying I don't like Farm Shops,I do,there are some very good ones which offer excellent individual products but they cant be viewed as a substitute to the dedicated local food shop.
We live near a market town where the once monthly farmers market has various stalls one of which is taken by the fishmonger who used to have a shop in town.How sad that a facility which was once available daily is now only available once a month.An opportunity to purchase sustainable fish from day boats not from trawlers dredging the deep ocean.
Whilst the farmers market is busy,its a niche market which attracts 'foodies' and also probably the few who supported the local shops.The many organic and specialist products on sale mean the Farmers market isn't accessible to all.I'm told that there's a quite rigorous selection process for anyone wanting to obtain a pitch at the farmers market.
At the twice weekly market shoppers have the benefit of a fruit and veg stall,but the biggest stall is the one selling CDs.Its no longer food oriented.
Looking at the latest reports available the growth in farm shops is heralded as a retail success,but the growth has to be seen in context with the closures of many local shops.I bet proportionally in the same period far more local food shops have been lost.
After I'd started writing this I noticed this article in the Guardian today.If true its worrying that yet more basic accessible to all stalls are jeopardised as a result of not meeting the elitist criteria of the market trustees.
This country needs some forward thinking town planners who could offer attractive business rates/incentives to local food shops in the same way that the Micro Breweries have been supported by the government in the Progressive Beer Duty which has resulted in an explosion of local breweries and the rejuvenation of a traditionally British industry.
Its a shame the value of the local shop isn't more widely recognised. If we're not careful soon the only options available will be at opposite ends of the spectrum,and worryingly the traditional atmosphere of our town centres will be lost forever.
Society's obsession with convenience/image is inherently to blame for the mountain of food waste experienced in this country.
Its a cultural problem.
Oh and one other thing, 6th-12th September is National Zero Waste Week sponsored by a packaging company(I'm sure that's a contradiction in terms)and endorsed by chef Brian Turner.