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How to solve Britain's overstuffed Christmas food waste epidemic

Overspending means Brits end up wasting an incredible amount of food over the festive period. The Big Issue finds out what can be done with the leftover turkeys and Christmas puddings

Two million turkeys. Five million Christmas puddings. Over 74 million mince pies.

It’s not the scene at The Big Issue Christmas party, but some of what makes up the estimated 270,000 tonnes of food wasted in the UK each year. Half of Brits said they usually overspend on food at Christmas, with those in north-east England proving to be the worst culprits.

Unilever research showed that while weekly household budgets continue to fall – more than 100,000 children are at risk this winter as the rollout of Universal Credit continues – many will feel obliged to spend more than they can afford for their family this Christmas. And, ultimately, much of it ends up in landfill; food redistribution charity FareShare calculated that only six per cent of it ends up in the hands of people less fortunate.

You might be an old hand at recycling by now, ready to spend Boxing Day rinsing tin cans and dismantling cardboard boxes. But what are the options for people concerned by food poverty and waste food’s environmental impact?

Families are struggling. Many can’t even put tinned veg on the table

As far as charities across the UK are concerned, redistribution is the way forward. The Trussell Trust recorded more than 1.8 million foodbank handouts in 2017, with a 45 per cent rise in demand around Christmas. Tom Church, co-founder of online money saver LatestDeals, said: “Families are struggling. Many can’t even put tinned veg on the table.”

Like the rest of the year, they’re in need of the basics – non-perishable food and toiletries – but foodbank volunteers have encouraged the public to donate festive items too. Sweets, chocolates, condiments and puddings would all help those on the margins enjoy the season.

If you are unable to make a donation during daytime hours, look into local supported accommodation schemes – they’re more likely to be able to take donations at unusual hours.

Alternatively, you might have a local community fridge. Championed by environmental charity Hubbub, the fridges are stocked by local businesses and residents with any surplus food and function on an honesty basis. The network was set up in an attempt to connect communities as well as help those struggling to put food on the table, and Hubbub’s online network map will detail where your nearest fridge is.

Instead, you might be aware that it’s 2018, and tech is king. That’s why Tessa Clarke and Saasha Celestial-One launched OLIO, a smartphone app that acts as a surplus-food marketplace. Combining their experiences of farming and innovative reuse, the pair found that one in three people felt “physically pained” by having to discard good food, and were shocked that the alternatives were sparse.

In 2015, the full version of the platform was released: it connects neighbours with each other and local businesses, letting users list any items they have to give away and arrange a pick-up through private messaging. (A Hubbub poll found that over 80 per cent of people would be happy to receive food from a neighbour.) If an app isn’t for you, a number of localised Facebook groups dedicated to sharing food have developed in the wake of cuts to benefits and public services.

That said, it can be difficult in the Christmas rush to find time to donate or arrange a food exchange. That’s why charity FareShare set up permanent collection points in more than 100 Tesco stores UK-wide where they accept store-cupboard essentials and non-perishable items. The charity is part of The Global FoodBanking Network, an international movement working to reduce hunger by tackling food waste. The charity is also taking fresh food from the supermarkets and restaurants which would otherwise go to waste and transporting it to frontline charities and community groups across 1,500 towns and cities. Last year they collected nearly 17,000 tonnes of food – 36.7 million meals – and delivered it to homeless hostels, domestic violence refuges and breakfast clubs for children.

Their model is similar to The Felix Project, a branch of the foundation set up by Justin Byam Shaw in memory of his late son. After Felix died from meningitis aged 14, his father was determined to put good out into the world in his name – recalling his son’s horror when he discovered that boys on the opposing team at a football match hadn’t eaten that day.

Meanwhile, ReFood collects surplus food for an entirely different purpose: creating clean energy from waste food using innovative technology. Known as anaerobic digestion, the organisation says that if all the food wasted at Christmas in the UK was recycled into energy, a medium-sized home could be powered for 57 years.

Philip Simpson, commercial director, said: “Obviously the first priority is to eliminate waste, and address the needs of food charities. But when that’s not possible, we need to have a more sustainable attitude to dealing with this waste problem.

“The cost of sending food waste to landfill can be 46 per cent higher than disposing of it via anaerobic digestion.”

Brits have proven that economic uncertainty won’t necessarily deter them from going big at Christmas, least of all when it comes to food. But with a growing section of the population turning to sustainable lifestyles, it seems likely that many will do their bit for the planet and for vulnerable neighbours. In the spirit of Christmas.

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