28 Apr 2021 Blog: How tackling food waste can support public health
To mark this year’s Stop Food Waste Day (28th April), Food Active Project Support Officer Chloé Higham-Smith explores what opportunities there are to improve public health through addressing the issue of food waste.
What is food waste?
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) defines food waste as “a decrease in the quantity or quality of edible food that is intended for human consumption” . Food waste refers to the removal of food from the food supply chain which is still fit for human consumption, either by choice or after the food is spoiled or expired, typically occurring at the retail and consumer level .
Around 70% (6.6 million tonnes) of UK food waste comes from the home. Although total household food waste in the UK has reduced by 26% over the last decade, 4.5 million tonnes of edible food, worth around £14 million, is still wasted. The carbon associated with this wasted food is equivalent to that generated by one in five cars on UK roads . Currently, potatoes, bread and milk make up the top 3 wasted food items in UK homes that could have been eaten, with 20 million whole slices of bread, 4.4 million whole potatoes and 3.1 million glasses’ worth of milk thrown away every day .
Food waste: a public health issue?
In the UK, food waste and food insecurity are closely linked. Currently, 8.4 million people in the UK are struggling to afford to eat, with 4.7 million people living in severely food insecure homes . Yet at the same time, the average UK household wastes the equivalent of 8 meals a week . How can a country, where the quantity of food is sufficient to meet dietary energy demands, have such a huge problem with food insecurity? . Effectively addressing food waste could have significant benefits to public health. In this blog we attempt to uncover what those benefits could be.
Food waste and food insecurity
Firstly, by ensuring oversupply of food is effectively distributed we can support households who are living in food insecurity. Covid-19 has dramatically exacerbated food insecurity levels, with 9% of UK households now struggling to afford or access a nutritious diet compared to 7.6% pre-pandemic . Households with children on Free School Meals have been worse hit, with 41% reporting food insecurity during the lockdowns . Reducing food waste has the potential to improve food security by redistributing surplus food to people in need . The cost of food waste for large producers and companies is marginal compared to operative costs, but for charities like Fare Share and FoodCycle, who receive and redistribute food to those in need, the value is huge . If food surplus currently redistributed in the UK was scaled up to the levels that France is achieving, this would represent an annual food cost avoided of £250-£300 million for surplus food charities . UK food redistribution almost doubled between 2015-2018 for the charitable and commercial sectors combined, equivalent to an additional 65 million meals at a value for £81 million . Whilst these efforts have fed millions of food-insecure families, food redistribution cannot be seen as a long-term and sustainable solution to help families struggling to eat as it does not tackle the drivers of food insecurity. Additionally, how does it make these families feel if all they can access is food that was otherwise destined for the bin? 
Food waste and the environment
Secondly, reducing the amount of food wasted can help to reduce the burden our food system places on land, water and other natural resources. Food and land related carbon emissions can have a detrimental impact on our environment and are responsible for 26% of the global total . Reducing our carbon emissions is incredibly important in the fight against climate change – which is arguably one of the greatest threats to public health. Food waste means wasted energy – and the wasted resources that have gone into the production, manufacturing and distribution of food can damage our environment. Furthermore, we know that climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health. Energy dense, nutrient poor, cheap processed foods, which are more readily available to low-income families, require greater levels of energy and processing compared to healthier, fresh produce .
Food waste and healthy weight
Finally, addressing food waste can benefit our weight status as food can also be wasted through over-consumption. The term ‘metabolic food waste’ (MFW) refers to the consumption of food in excess of nutritional requirements that uses valuable food system resources and manifests as overweight and obesity . Additionally, retailers encourage over-consumption of less healthy foods through a bombardment of advertising, promotions and offers. Consumption of food that is above the recommended energy requirements represents not only a health risk, but also puts pressure on the environment  and energy dense, processed foods have been shown to be a major contributor to Greenhouse Gas emissions . The overall impact of MFW associated with overweight and obesity in the world in 140.7 million tonnes of food waste, with the highest ecological impact for water, land and carbon footprints . Tackling the cost of obesity and food waste combined has the potential to save huge amounts of money and environmental resources . The Brighter Bites Case Study demonstrates how tackling food waste can have a positive impact on the diets of low-income families by redistributing donated fresh produce whilst providing nutrition education, creating an increased demand for intakes of fruits and vegetables. Decreasing our consumption of less healthy processed foods and increasing our intake of fresh, healthy produce can reduce both the risk of dietary imbalances and the unnecessary use of environmental resources .
Tackling food waste, food insecurity and obesity must be addressed at an individual, national and global level. At an individual level, we can all do more to reduce our household waste – foods binned due to being past their use-by dates is responsible for the greatest proportion of food lost in homes. Keeping track of what you have bought and planning your meals around the ingredients you have in your fridge will ensure less food is thrown away. Additionally, freeze anything you can’t eat fresh and move older food to the front of the fridge to make sure it isn’t forgotten. At a national level, the Government should consider how to integrate education about food waste across the life course to help support the individual. We also need to find a long-term solution to reducing food insecurity, rather than relying on wasted food to feed hundreds of thousands of families across the country. The food industry must also play its part by not encouraging the overconsumption of food through marketing, and taking steps to reduce the environmental burden of their food production. Unless we find better solutions, the effects of food waste will continue to damage the environment and our health.
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