When Gavin Findlay was working at food rescue organisation KiwiHarvest, he got a call from someone offering them 50 tonnes of carrots – for free.
“What can you do?” the supplier asked.
Findlay replied: “We can take maybe two tonnes of that.”
KiwiHarvest may have grown to be one of the largest food rescue organisations in the country, but that’s all it could take.
“That’s like four bins of carrots. That was the volume we could handle prior to that product spoiling and going off.”
Findlay says it was tough to reject so much free produce.
“When you know it’s going off to landfill, creating greenhouse gases, and when you know that you’ve got a good use for it.
“But physically we just didn’t have the space, resources or funding to be able to do that.”
It was those kinds of calls that spurred KiwiHarvest founder Deborah Manning to set up the New Zealand Food Network.
The Food Network got started in the early days of the pandemic and is a nationwide distributor of surplus food from big manufacturers.
Findlay describes the Food Network as the “big wholesaler” compared to its sister company the “small localised retailer”.
“There was a gap in being able to handle some of the large volumes of food surplus that are generated in the commercial sector that we saw going off to landfill,” he says.
That was an “absolute environmental menace”.
But there was also immense social need out there – people are finding it very difficult to put adequate nutritious food on the table.
“We knew there was a large volume of food surplus that just wasn’t finding a home – a couple of hundred pallets of product going to waste, 20 tonnes of fish, 50 tonnes of vegetables. That volume just couldn’t be handled by any of the existing entities,” Findlay says.
“If we [KiwiHarvest] couldn’t handle that, nobody else could.”
In May 2020, Findlay and his team were granted $5.5 million by the Government to set up the Food Network. That money came from a $32 million package aimed at boosting food security.
It’s the only organisation in the food rescue sector working at scale, with the ability to collect stuff by the pallet load, then store it, stack it, refrigerate or freeze it – and send it out to the 171 hubs around the country.
Through the hubs, the Food Network has distributed more than 11 million kilograms of food, or nearly 32 million meals.
By doing this it has diverted the equivalent of more than 17 million kilograms of carbon dioxide from landfill.
The Food Network has 79 donors of surplus food, mainly large manufacturers, growers, wholesalers and packhouses. At its warehouse in South Auckland, Findlay explains to The Detail how it receives, packs and repacks the bulk food for the hubs.
He says the amount of food rescued is still a fraction of what’s sent to the dump in both commercial and household waste – and the Food Network could take more.
It’s just been granted $440,000 by the Government to install more chillers and freezers.
Despite the immensity of the food waste problem, many producers aren’t aware of the food rescue sector.
“We still come across entities going, ‘Gee, I wish I’d known about you guys five years ago’. There’s still opportunity for us to make more of a difference,” Findlay says.
There is a difference between surplus food that’s still edible, but can’t be sold, and food waste, which can’t be consumed by humans, but could be sent to compost or animal feed.
In the warehouse Findlay takes The Detail along the floor-to-ceiling shelving and explains how the surplus food they receive is often a surprise, rejected because the packaging is damaged, the product is sample-only, the fruit and vegetables are not perfect, or the wrong ingredients have been added.
“We had a fantastic little example at KiwiHarvest when I first came on. I had a call from an entity to say, ‘Look I’ve got 10 pallets of this product, it’s called chicken risotto. Just one little problem, we forgot to put the chicken in’.”
They took the 10 pallets of chicken-less chicken risotto.
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