We meet organisations that lead the way in reducing food waste and learn that all of us have a responsibility to tackle this global challenge.

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“I was a lawyer but wanted to do something more socially relevant”, Deborah Manning begins. We meet her at her office in Dunedin. “I knew that in New Zealand, a large group of people has difficulty accessing nutritious food. At the same time, an enormous amount of good food ends up in landfill every day. I saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: reduce food waste and bring good food to the people who need it most”, Deborah says. “I started collecting food in the trunk of my car and eventually founded Kiwi Harvest.” We are intrigued and anxious to learn more.

100,000 Tons of Food Thrown Away

“We didn’t realize that food poverty and waste were such big problems,” we admit. Deborah shows us some shocking statistics. “In New Zealand, more than 100,000 tons of food are thrown away every year, 60 percent of which is still fine to eat. Almost all of that ends up in landfills, where it rots and produces greenhouse gases”, she explains. “Composting is, unfortunately, not well-organized in New Zealand”, Deborah laments. “All those nutrients are simply lost.”

We ask Deborah why so much food is wasted. “The food industry naturally wants to prevent waste”, Deborah explains. “Wasting food equals losing money. Nevertheless, it happens regularly that less food is sold than expected, which results in fresh food reaching its best-before date on the shelves. When it comes to non-perishable items, they can be left over because of damaged packaging, a change in the assortment of the supermarket, or new flavours not selling well. Despite all the efforts stores and restaurants put in to prevent food waste, some degree of loss is simply inevitable. That means there is always food that we can save from landfill with Kiwi Harvest.”

Two Problems, One Solution

Deborah explains that a large group of New Zealanders faces difficulties making ends meet. “About 40 percent of Kiwis experience some form of food poverty. This means that for various reasons they are not always assured of a healthy meal. We call them food insecure. This fate currently affects 1 in 5 children in our country.”

Kiwi Harvest was created to tackle those two problems – food waste and food poverty. “I started on my own. I drove my car past supermarkets to pick up leftover food and distribute it to community centres”, Deborah explains. “We now have a professional organisation with permanent employees, volunteers, our own trucks, and food-hubs throughout the country. Every day, each hub collects food from supermarkets and restaurants in the region.”

Deborah clarifies that they are not a food composting service. “We collect products that can no longer be sold, but are still suitable for human consumption. Here in our warehouse we sort everything and prepare it for distribution. We’re taking it to community organisations that provide it to people who need it the most”, Deborah continues. “Those organisations assist people to get out of poverty. They help them get out of debt, guide them through job applications, and ensure that they get healthy food through us. In other words, our food deliveries are part of a range of services to help people get out of a difficult situation. We don’t want people to become dependent on food handouts.”

From Entrepreneur to Volunteer

To see the organisation’s work in action, Deborah suggests we join a pick-up and distribution trip with one of Kiwi Harvest’s volunteers. A truck is about to leave, so we hastily put on bright yellow vest and climb into the cabin. Driver Allan Croad takes us across the city to a less affluent neighbourhood of Dunedin. Our destination is a community centre for people from such Pacific islands as Tonga, Fiji, and Vanuatu. “Many Pasifika, as they are often called, are struggling to make ends meet”, Allan clarifies. We help him unload dozens of food packages that Allan’s colleagues prepared at the distribution centre. “The volunteers from the community centre dispense these packages to 32 families in this neighbourhood”, Allan explains. “They know best who needs the packages the most. By leaving that decision to them, we can focus on collecting the food.”

On the way back, we stop at a large supermarket. They clearly have been expecting us: three well-filled shopping carts are waiting for us to take to the truck. Fresh products that are close to their sell-buy date make up the majority of the carts’ contents. “Our collecting these leftover food items means that the supermarket does not have to throw them away. They would normally have to pay for discharging waste, so it saves them money.” While we load the truck, Allan tells us that Kiwi Harvest primarily collects nutritious food, such as vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and dairy. “No soft drinks, alcohol, or fast food”, he adds. On the way to Kiwi Harvest we ask him how he ended up at volunteering for them. “I used to be an entrepreneur but sold my company. When I heard about this great initiative here in Dunedin, I volunteered. It allows me to give something back to society. It’s a rewarding job that I really enjoy”, he replies with a smile.

Serving More Than Fifty Regional Food Hubs

Back at the warehouse, Deborah talks about her latest initiative. “If a producer has a lot of pallets of food for us, we cannot accept the donation because our food hub simply doesn’t have the capacity to store and distribute it. To rescue this food too, last year I co-founded a national distribution centre: the New Zealand Food Network.” The timing could not have been better, Deborah adds. “Due to the pandemic, more people are struggling, so there is more food poverty. When I talked to the government about my initiative, there was a lot of interest. That is why they agreed to finance a large part of it”, she proudly says.

Of course, we are eager to have a closer look. A few weeks later, director Gavin Findlay welcomes us to the new centre in Auckland. He reiterates Deborah’s assertation that there is always food to rescue. “It’s in part caused by consumers wanting perfection. I’ll show you what I mean.” He takes us through a door that leads to an immense warehouse. Forklift trucks are moving around pallets from multi-storey racks to trucks parked outside and vice-versa. We walk across the warehouse to two boxes full of apples. “These look perfectly fine. Why were they not sold?” we ask. “These apples don’t meet the desired size or beauty standards”, Gavin explains. “Look, a few small flecks is all it takes for them to be discarded! In this case, it’s the consumer’s pursuit of perfection causing food waste.” He points to pallets of flour. “That flour’s shelve life is not long enough for the retailer, so it has hardly any value anymore. Of course, we can find grateful recipients for it.”

Gavin’s explanations prompt us to ask how such large amounts of food get to the people who need it, and quickly too. Gavin leads us back the office to show us their IT platform. “We work with regional food hubs like Kiwi Harvest all over the country. More than 50 of them are connected to our system. We allocate a mix of food products to them, based on their size and preferences. They can log on to the system and choose if they accept it. If they do, we organise the transport to deliver it to them”, Gavin explains. “If not, we allocate it to a different hub. We’re more of a logistics company than a food company, really”, he declares. We can’t help but be impressed by the size and success of the young organisation.

Beer from Bread and Bread from Beer

At our friends’ house in Auckland, Ivar is offered a beer. “I’m sure you’ll find this interesting”, our host Kerry smiles. “Citizen beer, made from rescued bread”, Ivar reads on the label. “Awesome! And it tastes really good too.” We contact the beer brand’s co-founder Donald Shepherd, who shares Citizen’s story with us. “We are a collective of chefs, brewers, bakers, and innovators who focus on up-cycling food. We’re committed to reducing food- and resource waste”, Donald explains. He describes how Citizen’s beers are brewed with unsold bread. It replaces about a quarter of the malted barley in each brew. And it doesn’t stop there: the leftovers of the brewing process are used again as the main ingredient in traditionally baked sourdough bread. Food rescue at its best!

Rescuing Food Starts with You

A staggering 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted worldwide every year, which is about 30 percent of all food that is produced. It hardly needs explaining that wasting food is at odds with sustainability. If less food was wasted, less would need to be produced. That would make a massive difference in land, water, and energy use, emissions and packaging materials. In addition, less food would end up in landfill, leading to fewer greenhouse gas emissions than food waste is currently causing.

We therefore applaud the efforts and successes of Deborah, Gavin, Donald, and their teams in combating food waste. Yet we cannot leave the solution of the problem entirely to food rescue organizations. This is particularly pertinent considering that the biggest source of food waste are households. More than half of all wasted food in developed countries originates at home. It underscores that we all have a responsibility to rescue more food!

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