Food waste is a very important problem and a major issue our societies face globally. A lot of awareness raising is needed to get people across the supply chain to realise what is happening. From the farmer to the consumer, it is essential that we combat food waste together.
Food and Wine Gazette is very new on the block and for the time being we have a very small audience. But just like Isabel Soares, the Portuguese entrepreneur who is serving 420 families with food which would otherwise be thrown away, we want to do our little part and raise awareness about the issue.
The story of Isabel Soares is an incredible one. She recounted this at the Mad Food symposium that took place last month and the video of her presentation has just been uploaded on Mad Feed.
Since starting less than a year ago, she has saved 41 tonnes of food from going to waste. Nearly single-handedly, she is serving 420 customers, has a waiting list of over 2000 customers and gets her produce from over 30 farmers. The name of her co-operative is Fruta Feia which in English means Ugly Fruit.
What she does in a nutshell is buy fruit and vegetables which is normally rejected by supermarkets directly from farmers. These would normally go to waste because they are either too small or too big and may not have a perfect shape, colour or size. By doing so, she is helping to combat the problem of food waste single handedly.
“We know that half of the food produced in the world is wasted every year. We know from the FAO that all the food wasted in the world each year would be enough to feed all the starving people in the world. This waste is not only an ethical issue but also has huge environmental consequences,” Isabel says. “It has an impact on the soil, energy and water. Food waste contributes to climate change as food that is not consumers results in carbon dioxide emissions.”
Isabel says that the reasons for waste are numerous and occur across the food supply chain. “This is due to intensive farming methods, inadequate storage, expiry dates which are to short and sales and discounts which encourage people to buy unreasonable quantities are all reasons for food wastage. Another problem is that major distributors want to have fruit and vegetables which are perfect. In Europe, this means that 30% of food produced by our farmers is wasted.”
She says that she became aware of the problem at the end of 2012 while watching documentaries and reading articles on the subject. “During Christmas time, I spoke to my uncle, a farmer, and he told me how 40% of his really tasty pears had to be thrown away because they were not the desired shape. Can you imagine. that the same thing would happen to me. I am short so if I am a fruit, I would not be fit for the market,” she said to loud applause from those present.
Isabel said that this issue disturbed her and although she was working as an environmental engineer in Barcelona she read about a contest for innovative ideas for Portuguese in a newspaper. “I came second in June 2013, won 15,000 Euros and Fruta Feia was launched. I quit my job in Barcelona, went back to Lisbon scared to death to implement this idea to create a co-operative model.
“I did not want to create a cheaper store but wanted people to be active and feel part of the project by making a commitment to reduce food waste.”
Isabel said the prize money was not enough to cover transportation, legal costs for setting-up and material so they ran a crowd-funding campaign to provide the money that was needed. She started her co-operative in November 2013 and from the beginning there was a huge uptake from consumers.
“We sent an email and had over 100 people in less than a week wanting to buy produce. Farmers were suspicious. Some thought I was a food safety inspector. Another thought I was simply insane and yelled at me telling me he had been told for 40 years that his turnips had to be perfect and here was someone who wanted to buy ugly fruits and vegetables,” she said.
She said that at first she was curious as to what the profiles of consumers were. “But there is no profile. We have clients from 18 to 80 years and cover from the low to the high social classes. The model is now working and it is easier to find farmers. Now they come looking for us and not other way round. They see us as an extra revenue as we start buying at a fair price what was previously considered as food waste.”
Each week they work with local producers to sell produce which is local and in season. They sell two different boxes. A small one with 3 to 4 kilos having seven varieties costing 3.5 euros and a big box of 6 to 8 kilos with eight varieties costing 7 euros.
Isabel said that before she started, there were several initiatives to fight food waste such as donations of surplus food from restaurants and supermarkets to charity institutions but no initiatives existed to tackle food that was rejected for aesthetic reasons. The initiative has great following. The co-operative has over 26,000 followers on Facebook and has captured the attention of foreign press. She recalls how on the day when their story was covered on the New York Times, their van caught fire and was a total loss. “It was nearly over for us because the van constituted our largest investment. But we decided to continue, borrowing a van from a friend who had a restaurant. Then another friend came to pick us up. We arrived in Lisbon with a three hour delay and only had 45 minutes to prepare 200 boxes for consumers which would otherwise have taken us 3 hours. It was an olympic challenge but news spread and when we arrived we found 15 people waiting for us so that they could help us. It was here that I realised that the co-operative was here to stay,” she said to large applause.
Consumers helped to fund 1/3 of a newer and larger van. The co-operative is now making profits which are all channeled towards reinvesting to grow the project. There is waste throughout Portugal, Isabel says, so she is trying to replicate the project in other cities by the end of this year.
Addressing the chefs in the audience, she said that when it came to high end dining, pretty dishes were important. “But I ask myself what impact would dishes have if they were cooked with ugly fruit and vegetables. You might reverse the paradigm. You may need to start thinking about dishes which do not need to look identical and regular. I understand that the quantities of each ingredient must be the same for the taste to be the same but there is nothing wrong with serving different dishes of the same item on the menu. Wouldn’t it be fun to use the shapes that nature provides,” she said.
Isabel’s story deserves attention and all possible publicity. We hope that others can replicate this model elsewhere.