Charities serve up extra helpings

As eating gets more ethical globally, with top chefs turning leftovers into gourmet meals for the homeless, social entrepreneurs in Ireland are attempting to curb our throwaway culture and tackle food poverty

Ask any of the world’s top chefs what they think is the food trend of the moment and the answer won’t be farm-to-fork or foraging. It will be cutting waste, a subject to which many of us nod dutifully in response, but few actually do anything about.

Step forward Massimo Bottura, chef patron of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, which has three Michelin stars and is ranked number two on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best list. Having opened the Refettorio Ambrosiano — a soup kitchen that used leftover food collected daily from the pavilions of Expo Milan 2015 to feed Milan’s hungry — he put food waste solidly on the culinary agenda.

He didn’t do it alone. High-profile names including Ferran and Albert Adria, Alain Ducasse, Daniel Humm, Gastón Acurio and our own Mark Moriarty took turns in the kitchen, happy to feed the city’s hungry rather than the world’s gastronauts. Visiting chefs have been inspired to open similar projects in New York and Lima in Peru.

“I see great chefs leaving the Refectory with tears in their eyes,” says Bottura. “Gastón [Acurio] is telling everyone that it is the most incredible experience he has had in his life and he wants to do something similar in the poorest quarters in Lima. This is what it’s about. For me, it all starts with a fight against waste. We are going to be the ambassadors of this new ethical way.”

Zero waste is not just a good intention, it has become a practical movement, fighting back against a culture of industrialised processed food and farming practices driven by the needs of profit rather than the welfare of our health. Increasingly, social action is dominating the conversations of the world’s leading chefs.

Douglas McMaster opened Silo, the UK’s first zero-waste restaurant, in Brighton last September. René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, Alex Atala of DOM in São Paulo, and Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne have all installed the revolutionary Closed Loop composter in their kitchens, which coverts organic waste into an odourless compost suitable for putting back into the soil in just 24 hours. Copenhagen has No Waste Mondays. San Francisco plans to have zero waste by 2020. France recently passed a law banning supermarkets from destroying unsold food.

“The issue is going to be more important every year,” says Bottura, whose social conscience has seen him approached on many occasions to run for mayor of Modena. “At the moment, you have this question, ‘How do we feed the planet?’ For me, the answer is, first of all, to fight the waste.

“If you look at figures from the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, 1.3bn tonnes is wasted every year, a fourth of which would be enough to feed everyone in need. This is not acceptable. We have to make visible the things that are invisible. So, from a very ripe dark banana, to an ugly tomato; from leftover breadcrumbs to a cheese, you can create incredible things. And I am living this kind of experience.”

Expo Milan, which finishes at the end of the month, has put the global spotlight on food with its theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. Closer to home, the Irish Food Writers’ Guild (IFWG) launched its first Social Responsibility Awards on Wednesday in recognition of the contribution made by individuals, businesses and non-profit organisations in furthering social responsibility in Ireland’s food sector. Top place at the inaugural awards went to the Bia Food Initiative (BiaFi), a Cork-based food bank that facilitates the transfer of surplus food from businesses to charities. The project impressed the judges for “tackling food waste as well as food poverty”, according to guild chair Aoife Carrigy.

“The initiative started as a concept back in 2012,” says Karen Horgan, project manager at the BiaFi in Cork. “A working group from industry, the charity sector and the environmental sector got together, recognising that there was a need for a safe and secure avenue for surplus food redistribution in Ireland.

“It took from then till 2014 to get the funding together and the plans in place to turn it into a physical reality. So we opened a warehouse in Cork in July 2014. We’ve been in operation for the past 15 months and at this stage we have redistributed 280 tonnes of surplus food.”

Companies within the Irish food sector, including retailers, distributors, growers, producers and manufacturers, have signed up as registered donors. When they find themselves with a surplus — reasons include stock being short-dated, over production, distribution delays, misshaped fruit and veg, end of line products or food from the service industry being unsold — they put a call into BiaFi and deliver their surplus to the warehouse where it is divided and redistributed to charities.

“At the moment, we distribute to about 53 charities in the Munster region but we are due to go nationwide at the end of November with another depot in Dublin and one in Galway,” says Horgan. “We have no idea what we’re going to get from week to week.

“We get different types of donations. We have a big fridge and freezer here that the JP McManus Fund provided for us, so we get in yoghurt, cheese and meat which we turn over very quickly, and some ambient product which we can store for longer periods and drip feed into the charities. We also get donations of breakfast cereals from Kellogg’s every month, so we send them out as they are required by the charities. Sometimes we get in food in big bulk which we can freeze and send out to the charities in a controlled period over the weeks.”

The charities supplied by BiaFi include children’s breakfast clubs and after school clubs, St Vincent de Paul, which distributes food to families in need in their particular parish, the Penny Dinners soup kitchen, hostels, drug and alcohol abuse centres, and homeless charity the Simon Community in Cork.

Longer established is the Dublin Simon Community Soup Run, founded in 1969 by a group of Trinity and University College Dublin students who provided soup and sandwiches to the city’s rough sleepers. Volunteers still go out 365 nights of the year. The judges considered it to have had such an impact that it was immediately entered into the IFWG Social Responsibility Award Hall of Fame.

“The soup run is operated by dedicated teams of over 100 part-time volunteers who walk the streets in all weather offering soup, sandwiches, tea and a chat to people who are homeless around the city,” says Sam McGuinness, chief executive of Dublin Simon Community. “For people who are going through the most difficult times of their lives, accessing basic needs such as food is often the first step they take on the journey out of homelessness.”

For IFWG chair Carrigy, turning the spotlight on such initiatives can educate the public. “We believe it’s important to look at small communities as much as large-scale initiatives and projects,” she says. “Every initiative has an impact.”