I don’t waste, I can’t afford it!

Australia’s food retail and food service industries are prone to food waste. Estimates suggest that for these businesses, between 30-40% of all waste sent to landfill is (avoidable) food waste. So we were surprised to hear stallholders frequently say “But I don’t waste!” and have this echoed by market organisers too.

So when we set out on the background research phase, we were keen to test this idea that stallholders don’t waste food, and if true, understand how/why food stalls don’t gneerate food waste in the same way that traditional food retail and food service businesses do.

Our Food waste at Farmers Markets and Festivals project gave us the opportunity to talk to 29 food stallholders at 4 markets across the City of Sydney. In addition to understanding stallholders’ perceptions of how much and what type of food was being wasted before, at and after markets, we wanted to check out the actual market bins to see for ourselves what was going in them.

Spread and size of markets covered by research

Do waste or don’t waste?

Interestingly, our inspection of back-of-house bins at one market revealed the presence of some discarded food produce in both the rubbish and the recycling bins despite stallholder and market organiser claims otherwise. Both fresh produce (potatoes and apples) and packaged products (fruit juice) were found in the bins at one market.

However the relative volume of food waste discovered, as a proportion of total back-of-house waste, was quite small compared to the high volumes of food waste in related industries of food retail and food service.

Bins inspected at one market

How stallholders avoid waste

Informal interviews with stallholders revealed again and again a common theme: ‘we’re too small, we can’t afford to waste’. Stallholders gave examples of how they have become very efficient at maximising the use of their product so no avoidable food waste is produced. We uncovered many creative solutions, including:

  • A fruit and veg stall who turned damaged produce into juice, smoothies and pasta sauce
  • A confectionery stall who used broken products to create a ‘Crumble’ range
  • A cake/sweet stall who keeps ice-buckets at the back of the stall and rotates the food on display in and out of the buckets to avoid melting

They also described how they get to know their customers well, so they can confidently and accurately predict demand for each market. Some stallholders also explained that their small size meant they could not adequately keep up with demand and so almost always sold out, eliminating the possibility for excess. Others adopted this as a deliberate strategy, ordering with the intent to sell out before end of market – particularly hot food stalls.

Where there is still waste

Deeper enquiry with stallholders reveals that despite perceptions and the above strategies, there are sources of avoidable food waste at farmers markets. For example:

  • Fresh produce stallholders have products that spoil or get damaged during storage and transport pre- and post-stall. All stallholders acknowledged some extent of this, though most also reported being too busy to track the amount. The estimated quantity is small and considered acceptable to stallholders – a fact of life.
  • During the market, food waste was generally limited to leftovers from ‘samples’, or the occasional burnt meal.
  • In some cases, extreme heat led to spoilage of produce or products for stallholders who were not prepared.
  • Surplus unsold food is limited at farmers markets as demand is fairly predictable and usually exceeds supply. However, stallholders find bad weather means less market goers and may increase surplus, leading to the potential for food waste.

So food stallholders at farmers markets do produce avoidable food waste, but much less than their traditional food retail and food service counterparts.

What does this mean for tackling food at farmers markets?

Despite the volume of avoidable food waste being relatively small, it’s presence provides an opportunity to increase the sustainability of farmers markets by reducing it.

This will be difficult if food stallholders and market organisers continue to claim that there is no food waste.

One finding of our engagement is that it is often the word ‘waste’ which creates difficulties, as it can put people on the defensive. Over the course of the engagement, we found that it was generally more effective to use language such as “lifecycle of food”, “fate of food”, “surplus food”. When this terminology was used, it was easier to uncover the existence, and sources, of food waste by farmers markets.

Another reason uncovered related to different conceptions of what actually constitutes ‘food waste’. Look out for our next blog ‘It’s not waste, it goes to compost’ to find out more!

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