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Environment and Energy

The UK’s first ever ‘Food Waste Action Week’ takes place from 11 May, following a UK government announcement tied with January’s release of the Environment Bill. Here we focus on how the University of Cambridge is tackling food waste, as well as what University staff and students can do at home. 

The University Catering Service (UCS) runs eight cafes and outlets across Cambridge and provides events catering for the University. The UCS has an award-winning approach to sustainability, dating back to the launch of its Sustainable Food Policy in 2016. The UCS has won several awards for its efforts, most notably for its ground-breaking elimination of ruminant meat (outlined in last Summer’s Sustainable Food Journey). A lesser-known part of the UCS’ sustainability efforts is its work to reduce food waste, leading to a 6% reduction in food waste between August 2017 and March 2019 (for full details of the data collected see the Sustainable Food Journey report). How was this achieved? Sophie Satchell from the UCS tells us: 

“Most food waste in catering operations is wasted at the end of the supply chain, where the disposal of edible food can be driven by excessive portion sizes, wasteful sales practices and unnecessary aesthetic standards. With these facts in mind, we have adopted a number of approaches to lower our food waste. First of all, we have measured our food waste to track our efforts. Food waste bins are available not just for customers in our cafes, but also our kitchens. These bins are collected and weighed, meaning we can monitor our food waste quite effectively. However we’re aware this doesn’t capture all food waste – for instance some customers take their food away, leading to disposal of waste off site, and people may still put food waste in the wrong bin which can affect the figures we receive. To get round this we’ve invested in ‘bin stations’ with very clear signage, and run regular events to educate our customers go in which bin. 

We’ve also learnt that customers were often not finishing large portions of food and therefore throwing food away. As a result we’ve tweaked portion sizes per person, slightly reducing the amount of food in each meal. We also try and match supply with demand, monitoring the number of customers we receive so that we can identify busier days, weeks, or even months of the year, feeding this information back to our chefs so they can prepare the right number of meals.  

Other tactics the UCS have adopted in the kitchen focus on reusing food which is not purchased, when it’s safe to do so. Making this left-over food into another meal means a reduction in waste, while our chefs have also learnt to use every part of ingredients so that very little needs to be thrown away” says Sophie. These factors have all helped lower food waste in our kitchens and cafes. 

There’s still one area of food waste that the UCS hadn’t tackled – until recent circumstances led to a whole new approach. When staff at the UCS learnt they would have to close due to COVID-19, there was an abundance of food in fridges, freezers and cupboards which was likely to expire before the cafes reopened” Sophie says. Instead of allowing it go to waste, the UCS donated this food to provide free lunches for NHS staff, and to Jimmy’s Shelter in Cambridge. We’re delighted to have been able to make this contribution which not only avoided food waste but also helped out the local community during this difficult time. 

While it’s great to hear about the work of the UCS, 6.6 million tonnes of food which is wasted in the UK comes from households. During this time of home isolation, many are finding a greater reliance on home-cooking, as well as a need to make cupboard stocks last a little longer. That’s why it’s a great time to pick up some new knowledge and skills which might help you reduce your food waste. A really useful resource is the Love Food Hate Waste website, which has a recipe search, guidance on food date labels, a food storage ‘A to Z’, a fridge temperature guide, and much more.