The Feeding of the 5000 (with Unwanted Fruit and Vegetables)

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag

The Feeding of the 5000

'You are cordially invited to a free lunch for up to 5000 people' reads the headline on the website Feeding the 5000.  On December 16th 2009, campaigners are going to turn several tonnes of ‘unwanted' fruit, vegetables and farm produce into a spectacular lunch of soup for passersby in London's Trafalgar Square.  The aim is to highlight the unbelievable waste of food in affluent countries.  We live in a society that has largely become disconnected from the land that sustains us and I believe that gardeners have a role to play in reversing this alarming trend.

Food waste has become big news over the past year.  Back in July the UK's prime minister, Gordon Brown, urged people to stop wasting food as a government study revealed that 4 million tonnes of food are thrown away every year.  Such figures are meaningless until converted into something more tangible – this is equivalent to 166kg (366lb) of food, costing around £420 ($700) for every household in the country being dumped every year.  About 40% of this waste comes directly from houses (25% of the food that is bought by families is thrown away) but the remaining waste comes from retailers and food services.  In the US the figures are even higher at 40 million tonnes of waste food per year – over twice as much per household.

Food security is becoming an international issue as several factors converge in the coming decades: increasing world population, climate change, oil supply and rising transportation costs to name but a few.  However, there are already wider impacts of food waste.  Nearly all food commodities are traded on global markets and, by the law of supply and demand, excessive demand by some countries increases prices of staple foods such as grain for poorer ones.  The issues are more complex of course but whatever way you look at it food waste is not good and its impact can be seen in many of the challenges facing our world.

So why should gardeners be concerned about these issues?  Surely growing your own food means that you are tapping into the most sustainable of food sources – your own organic fruit and vegetables?  Gardeners are far more likely to be composting waste and recycling what they can, so, surely they do not need to be worrying about this?

My own experience is that gardening brings about an important mind-shift – a change in the way we relate to the food we eat.  When you have sweated over your vegetable plot, tenderly raised plants, protecting them from adverse weather and pests, finally bringing them through to harvest, you cannot help but value the results.  Since I started growing my own food several years ago I have become far less ‘picky' about the condition of the produce I cook with.  I will peel wonky carrots, cut a bad bit out of a knobbly potato and happily accept blemished apples.  It's not just my own harvest either – I don't insist on buying perfect vegetables and like to see interesting varieties in shops.

Could gardening therefore be the key to reducing food waste that government ministers are missing?  I really believe it could.  As well as being great for the environment, gardening changes attitudes.  This is why here at we are so enthusiastic about the many organisations that are helping schools and communities gain first-hand experience of growing edible plants. 

So, I welcome the publicity that the ‘Feeding of the 5000' will generate next week but I'd like to add something.  As well as giving people a good lunch from unwanted vegetables, why not put a seed packet into their hand and get them experiencing the value of the earth we depend on?  After all, lasting change doesn't just come from good headlines but from changes of attitude.  Being encouraged to get their hands dirty might be just what people need to turn good slogans into practical action...

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Show Comments


"As a newbie, I totally agree with the change in mind-shift thing - I've always liked to think I was fairly 'good' anyway but I did used to waste a heck of a lot of food...often throwing away carrier bags full when the next lot of shopping came *blush*. Even after just a month of having our new Allotment, my attitude has really changed - our fridge is so 'used up' my kids think we are poor! lol Everything now gets used, fed to the bunny or composted - even old tea bags. Thanks for such an inspirational site, and great tool with the Planner!"
Adele on Saturday 12 December 2009
"When is the best time to trim fruit trees? (apples, pear? "
vernon on Monday 14 December 2009
"Adele - great to hear you are enjoying our site and the planner. It did make me smile when I read that your kids think you are now poor - I can just imagine my children saying that too! Waste food that gets fed to rabbits is great because rabbit droppings make a great enrichment for compost."
Jeremy Dore on Monday 14 December 2009
"Vernon, you will find some information on when to trim fruit trees in the comments of the following article:"
Jeremy Dore on Monday 14 December 2009
"Thanks for the information"
vernon on Monday 14 December 2009
"It's all very well for GB to complain about food being thrown away at the point of use. If he were serious he would attempt some regulation to stop the supermarkets forcing the growers to throw away one third of what they produce - runner beans that aren't mathematically straight etc"
Alan Rae on Wednesday 16 December 2009
"This issue is also apllicable to the USA . What can we do?"
vernon on Wednesday 16 December 2009
"...but then maybe we wouldn't want to buy them because we have become used to mathematically straight runner beans, and if they're a bit wonky there's something not right! Once went shopping in Portuguese supermarket and - uneducated as I was at the time - was horrified to see the state of their fruit and veg...all bruised, scarred and...natural! The way our kids are being pounded with 'organic', 'grow your own' and 'healthy eating'...hopefully there will be a general mind-shift that will bring about bigger changes and see so much waste and supermarket power being challenged."
Adele on Wednesday 16 December 2009
"Hi Adele we've all been conditioned into unrealistic expectations what matters is what it tastes like this is a classic romantic/classical split as per Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. What's more important - style or substance er discuss ;)"
Alan Rae on Thursday 17 December 2009
"hmm must finish that book, reclining on my shelf somewhere ;-) Reading "Tescopoloy" at the moment, so on a bit of an anti-supermarket roll. We are also conditioned to taste with some things too - fresh/home-made food doesn't taste like we expect it to...because it doesn't have all the salt and sugar added. Quite shocking when you start reading into it all. Amazing."
Adele on Thursday 17 December 2009
"My theory on how to fix the issue is that we should start a national supermarket run either as a cooperative (everyone can own an equal stake in the business) or by the government, who's aim is to provide the basics (organic fruit and veg) grown locally at a cheap price (it doesn't need to be expensive when the growers are supported by the government who in turn get money back from the sales). I have no problem with items being brought in from other countries, but those items should be sold at a premium price, taking into account the additional costs for transportation etc (they'd soon pay for the technology to produce the most desired items locally). For those only willing to buy the 'perfect' fruit/veg, a slight increase in price should be used compared to the 'imperfect' - all items produced should be made available to buy, and...(this really annoys me that it doesn't happen already), the items going out of date should be used either to rot down to compost for the growers which can also generate electricity (the technology to do this is already available), or be cooked up into batches of ready made healthy meals which can then be frozen and sold. Voila...some way to problem solved I hope. "
Dan Dore on Saturday 19 December 2009
"I like your ideas Dan! I just realised this even has been and gone...and I didn't see anything on the news. So just checked online and there's a video from The Guardian ( They even had too much 'waste' themselves and were giving it away, people asking 'what's up with it?'...nothing! Exactly! I have to say I didn't realise the extent of this until following this article and reading related stuff - does any of the 'waste' get donated? To feed the homeless or people in poverty? Like Dan says it could be cooked up and stored. Surely it doesn't ALL go to landfill??? Amazing."
Adele on Saturday 19 December 2009
"Thanks for posting the link to the video, Adele. It certainly sounds like the event was a great success, so let's hope it has got some people thinking. Although people usually look at the 25% of food wasted in homes, there is also a lot of waste of good produce right at the farms because supermarkets won't buy produce that doesn't conform to their standards. Estimates vary from 20-40% of all grown produce being wasted - not usually in landfill but more often ploughed back into the land or used as cattle feed. BTW there is a charity that redistributes waste food to the homeless - and excess from the London event went to them - but obviously it's very small scale compared to the problem"
Jeremy Dore on Saturday 19 December 2009
"If you look at the system, Farmer to distributor- store- resturant, I am sure there is a lot that gets thrown away.I f the farmer has produce that is not great looking he may throw it away or leave it in the field. The distributor , if they have produce that does not look grat or is starting to look old , they pitch it. Resurants do the same thing. In the US there are laws stating that store and resturants can't give it away. I would think , that you could give to some organization that feeds the poor and they could make soups or stews?"
vernon on Saturday 19 December 2009
"You'd be right - food wastage is undesirable. Eating food is often a group activity, and I have cooked my surplus for co-workers and friends. They get a break from cooking and we all get a chance to socialise. However, I became unemployed and I moved away to start a new life. My new neighbours think it strange to be invited to lunch and so I try only to grow/buy what I strictly need. 'Landshare' is a great idea, using land that would otherwise remain 'wasted'. There should be a 'Foodshare', to use food that would otherwise be binned. I have no problems bagging up or portioning out food to the many homeless people I see but their reaction is cash, cash, cash. I successfully won the agreement of a posh set of businessmen (only men, sadly) to have their uneaten sandwiches they got daily for their business functions and gave it to the homeless people in the park nearby. I was regarded as an eccentric curiosity and the agreement was stopped because they didn't want to 'spoil the beggars'. What we need is a shift in thinking in society. I'm already there, how about you?"
Kevin Hannan on Tuesday 22 December 2009

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