Expired Food, Real Food

date labelLast month I had the opportunity to speak with Adam Smith, founder of The Real Junk Food Project – a unique organization contributing to the global food waste reduction effort by challenging existing norms around when food is (or is not) fit for human consumption.

Smith, a trained chef, was working on a farm in Australia where he was struck by the amount and quality of food that was flowing to animals rather than being consumed by people upstream.    Conscious of the vast amount of hunger in Australia and around the world, he experienced an epiphany moment and determined that he was going to feed the world.  No small task, indeed, but the senseless nature of excessive food waste when paired with extensive hunger is a powerful motivator.

While gathering his thoughts, a friend advised him that “you can’t change the world unless you change your hometown first” – so he went back to the UK to put his plan together, forming The Real Junk Food Project in December 2013 as a company, not as a charity.  The organization captures excess food from multiple sources in the system — including donations, food banks, restaurants, cafes, and various events with leftover food – and turns all of that food into meals at its “pay as you feel” cafes.  Much of this food is near, at, or beyond designated expiration dates, which is exactly why it is available.  Smith is completely transparent about the age of the food that TRJFP handles, noting on the organization’s website that “we are challenging the grey areas within food laws and regulations in order for common sense to prevail when dealing with food.”  More specifically, he notes that “we intercept food that is past its expiration date and use our own judgment on whether we believe the food is fit for human consumption or not, by smelling it, tasting it and visually inspecting it.”  He points out that TRJFP doesn’t turn away food items simply because they are “expired” – but at the same time the team members will never serve food that they believe is “unfit for human consumption.”

As Smith openly notes, the organization is “challenging the grey areas” around expiration dates.  And rightly so.  We’re in need of healthy, focused, and balanced debate here, so that 1) developed countries like the US and the UK can simplify date labels – clearly distinguishing between labels for peak freshness and safety, 2) consumers can be educated on those labels so that they understand them and make more responsible decisions around food, and 3) other food system players take steps to make responsible use of dated food to reduce waste.

Smith notes that while not everyone is a supporter, The Real Junk Food Project enjoys broad support throughout the food system.  The group’s growth would support that notion, as it has gone from one to 128 sites in 42 months across seven countries.  He sees this as a huge “scale” opportunity.  It’s especially notable that the organization doesn’t receive donations directly from supermarkets.

Smith calls TRJFP an autonomous movement with an emphasis on inclusion; the core mission being to capture food “waste” from many points throughout the system and feed as many people as possible while proving the value and safety of those food resources.

TRJFP addresses the excessive amount of waste throughout the food system stemming from date labels.  As consumers, we are faced with many dates to evaluate on our food packages – sell by, use by, best by, best before, etc. – and we are understandably confused by them.  We also have a high degree of paranoia about “end of life” dates on our food, as if an item that was perfectly fine yesterday is now suddenly dangerous to our health one day later as it hits a designated “expiration” date.  As a result, we’ve long been conditioned to adopt a “when in doubt, throw it out” mindset to hedge against the minute potential of getting sick from food items that have been on hand for more than a few days (never mind that those dates are mainly indicators of producer-estimated peak freshness rather than safety).

Food businesses are fixated on expiration dates too.  Risk assessment rules the day, aging products are quickly discarded to avoid potential liability issues.  Retailers understandably seek products with the longest possible date range to maximize sales.  As a result, products are often refused if the shelf life is deemed too short, leading to considerable waste.  I once toured a recovery agency that had just received a large amount of yogurt that was rejected by a retailer despite the fact that the expiration date was more than thirty days into the future.  That seems a little excessive to me.  And while the non-profit benefited from the redistribution in this case, think of the overproduction in the food system that this example highlights.

The key point is that much of the food that goes to waste because it is considered beyond a safe date has plenty of runway left.  Might some of that food warrant immediate discard?  Sure.  But that amount is likely on the very low side, with the vast amount still perfectly, and safely, edible.

This is where chefs like Adam Smith come in, bringing a common-sense approach and demonstrating that much of this vast amount of excess food can be effectively utilized.  As Smith appropriately points out, who better to make such determinations than trained chefs?

And in the process, Smith and his team are using this captured food to feed all-comers in local communities on a “pay as you feel” basis – undoubtedly helping many individuals gain access to meals that they might not otherwise be able to afford.  In so doing, they benefit the environment, but perhaps most important, they bring people and communities together.

Smith feels that it’s difficult to argue against The Real Junk Food Project; the work that they do and the outcomes that they produce are incredibly significant.  They put food resources to good use, feeding people and reducing harm to the environment.  And they are change agents, empowering others while seeking to restore a value perspective toward food resources.  Smith notes that they are trying to create systemic change, and that if they can create a conversation around food and expiration dates – and how that food can be safely utilized – then they “can make huge changes in the global food system.”

I tend to agree.  I also agree with his view that developed world consumers simply don’t value their food sufficiently today because they are so far removed from it.  And I like his commitment to starting at the local level to have global impact.

Smith’s goal, as he puts it, is to prove that everyone can eat this “expired” food safely.  His frame:  Act locally, think globally.  The rapid growth of TRJFP would seem to indicate that the model is working.  And that expired food is real food, too.

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