Doing good with your leftover food

By Jessica Elgot, February 17, 2011
Leket voulnteers pick more than 5,000 tons of vegetables a year for the needy

Leket voulnteers pick more than 5,000 tons of vegetables a year for the needy

Every year, Britons throw away 8.3 million tonnes of food and drink. Supermarkets and bakeries bin food that is safe to eat, barmitzvah caterers give their staff leftovers and dispense with the remaining buffet items and busy mums take the "two for one" deal and end up binning the "free" product.

Michelle Barnett, director of Gift, is someone working to correct the balance. Founded in 2003, the charity collects bread, vegetables and supermarket food to redistribute to the needy. She is angry at the irresponsibility of many. "We do very, very little as a country. We waste so much. The supermarkets give us a ton of vegetables every fortnight. They could give us more but we can't cope with it. Grodzinski's bakery can give us 40 black bin bags of bread every day. They say it costs pennies to make. "

Based in London, the charity is branching out to Bournemouth and Manchester, and is launching a Gift box initiative in Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham. "We have Gift boxes outside the kosher shops," Ms Barnett says. "It encourages people to put their free "two for one" item in the box."

More than 150 Gift volunteers rescue and redistribute surplus food to more than 1,000 needy people every week. "Most of the families we give to have been referred to us by Norwood, or other welfare organisations like Jewish Women's Aid. We make up a random bag of food and leave it on the doorstep. Many are single mums, some have lost their jobs or have cancer. "

British families wanting to give back on holiday in Israel often work with a similar organisation, Leket. The project's founder, Joseph Gitler, is a New Yorker who made aliyah in 2000. Funded by Israeli and overseas donors, he hopes government cash will be forthcoming in the next couple of years. He recalls when he arrived, he could not believe no organisation existed in Israel to rescue food. "Somewhere between 25 to 30 per cent of all food is wasted. And 25 per cent of Israelis live below the poverty line. We should not allow that. Before I moved here, I believed poverty was mainly the strictly Orthodox and Israeli Arabs. That still is the bulk. But what got me is the working poor. People earning £700 a month, being paid the minimum wage and they still can't make a go of it."

The British volunteers help Leket to collect food from farms which would otherwise rot in the fields. "It can happen because of a lack of workers or damaged vegetables. Last year 40,000 volunteers came for a couple of hours each to pick, we distributed 5,000 tons of vegetables. It is so staggering, despite the lack of water, despite the crop failures, we still would waste that amount. Most of it is what is called Grade B vegetables. We have monster carrots, lumpy carrots, gnarly, off colour. We rescue them."

Another source of food for Leket is simchahs, an avenue Gift has struggled to make viable in the UK. "We have a volunteer-run project at night with hundreds of people who go out every week and pick up leftover food. The quality is outstanding -people have paid £100 a head. And in a soup kitchen the budget is £1.50 a day. In Western culture we expect abundance, the buffet always has to be full. "

Ms Barnett's experience is that kosher caterers here are scared of getting sued and would rather throw food away. "They say the chicken has been sitting out on the buffet from five o'clock and it's now midnight. One particular area of contention is surplus food at my children's local Jewish primary school. Especially salads, but also schnitzel, fish cakes and desserts. When I have asked to take it, dinner ladies say: 'Barnet policy is it has to be thrown away.' How crazy is that?"

Although Ms Barnett personally feels there is a long way to go in Britain before people recognise the problems that food waste causes, Mr Gitler says Leket is sometimes the victim of its own success. "Most of our original caterers have realised now that they were giving us too much food. So they make less and less goes spare. That's a problem for us when we need the food. But it's a good thing for the bigger picture of stopping waste."<br>

Last updated: 12:58am, February 25 2011