Where does all the food (waste) go?



France became the first country in the world to ban food waste by supermarkets, in 2016. According to legislation, retailers are duty bound to donate extra food to charities or food banks.

It is illegal for French supermarkets to spoil food past its sell-by date by using bleach or other chemicals, as a rising number of people dig through bins at night scrounging for some form of nutrition.

Back home, the levels of hunger and food insecurity are staggering. In 2017, 6.8 million South Africans still experience hunger. According to Statistics South Africa this is down from 13.5 million in 2002, and the reduction is largely due to the rollout of social grants. Reflecting the huge inequalities in society, the country is deemed food secure at a national level, while almost 20% of households had inadequate access to food in 2017.

Woolworths Director of Corporate Affairs Zinzi Mgolodela says that food security is far broader than just access to food, it is also touches on many other aspects such as nutrition and waste management. “Corporates cannot solve food insecurity with a click of a finger: it requires a lot of partnership and collaboration so that everyone contributes to a meaningful and systemic solution whilst derives some value from participation,” she says.

These Gugulethu children are ECD beneficiaries of FoodForwardSA. (Photo: Gavin Withers)

Oxfam defines food security as people having access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to meet their dietary requirements for an active lifestyle. Mgolodela says Woolworths is aware they cannot preach about food security if they create and irresponsibly dispose of food waste in their value chain.

As a high-end food retailer catering to middle and upper middle-class customers, Mgolodela says they have higher than normal levels of surplus food.

Mgolodela says that surplus food from Woolworths is food that has past its “sell by” date, which means it can no longer be on the retailer’s shelves, but before its “use by” date — the period customers typically keep products in their fridges before eating them. Some of the surplus food is donated to charities across the country.

Woolworths also partners with non-profit organisation (NPO) FoodForwardSA, which links retailers, manufacturers, farmers and growers with excess food to people in need. The organisation, established in 2009, has fed 250 000 people to date.

Woolworths works with FoodForwardSA on their entire supply chain, assisting the NPO with its complex logistics processes, in which preserving the cold chain is of utmost importance.

Charity begins at home

Mgolodela says that Woolworths is conscious of the need to create food security for its employees. It employs 33 621 people across its operations in food, clothing, beauty and homeware.

They use various initiatives in different stores to achieve this. Some make fruit available to staff members for free during working hours. Others use food vouchers as spot prizes, as a reward for good service. Employees also have the option of buying surplus food past its “sell by” date at heavily discounted prices.

Worm farms and chicken faeces

Mgolodela says that skills development is crucial to ensure long-term food security. The company starts from the “bottom of the pyramid” by donating surplus food to charities, which supply people who do not have the capacity to grow their own food.

Child hunger in South Africa is a serious concern, with more than half a million households with children aged five or younger experiencing hunger in some form in 2017, according to Stats SA.

Woolworths is a funding partner in the EduPlant programme, which is run and managed by Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA), and has worked with 29 368 schools over the last 15 years. The cycle runs over two years and 336 schools are involved in the 2019/2020 programme.

“We witness how this programme shifts thinking about the importance of growing good food and supplements school nutrition programmes,” Mgolodela says. She adds that children become increasingly innovative under the EduPlant programme. Some of them are using worm farms to generate organic fertilisers, as the alternative to chemical fertiliser. Others make use of chicken faeces as manure.

Aside from helping with nutrition and learning agricultural skills, Mgolodela says that running a school garden provide a living laboratory to various subjects such as biology, science and even comprehension, as they are able to write about real lived experiences.

Woolworths also works to improve skills in agriculture, sorely needed by emerging farmers. Mgolodela says that in another partnership programme young women are trained to become a major asset as skilled agricultural staff for emerging farmers.

Farming for the future

Corporates and governments are increasingly coming under pressure to mitigate against climate change. An estimated two to four million people, largely led by teenagers, marched in cities around the world on September 20, demanding action against shifting weather patterns.

Mgolodela says that Woolworths’ Farming for the Future initiative encourages farmers to farm responsibly using a scientific approach. A dedicated team audits their suppliers and the frequency of these checks is based on previous performance and progress.

She adds that Woolworths began its Good Business Journey in 2007, highlighting that this is a journey strategy with several areas of focus, including transformation, energy saving, water conservation and social development.

Mgolodela says that the retailer takes its corporate citizenship very seriously and wants to contribute to inclusive economic growth in South Africa.

“What is good for our customers is good for South Africa: we see ourselves as a participant, influencer and a corporate citizen, and we want to make a meaningful difference,” Mgolodela says. The company’s reputation is crucial and they want people to feel warm when they think of the “Woolies brand”.

The “Woolies Challenge” where people drank the company’s bottled water on social media earlier in 2019 highlights the aspirational aspect of the brand, especially the food section, which is seen as upmarket and high quality.

Mgolodela says that the company’s projects — surplus food for employees and charitable organisation, the EduPlant programme and its work with emerging farmers — highlight that “you don’t just have to be shopping at Woolies, to be part of Woolies”.

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Tehillah Niselow
Tehilla Niselow
S. African journalist. Currently wondering around other parts of the world.

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