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Coordinated food waste reduction can help the public sector cope with budget austerity

Posted by David Jackson / 8-Jul-2015

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Food waste could be costing the public sector as much as £150m yet up to 50% could be avoided. In the wake of further austerity cuts, cutting food waste is too big an opportunity to miss.

As the UK faces further cuts across public sector spending, food waste from public spending could be costing the government as much as £150m - the equivalent of over 6,000 teachers, 1,400 doctors or 750 fire engines. Reducing food waste from government’s £2bn food and catering spend presents a clear opportunity to save millions.On July 8th the British chancellor George Osbourne delivers his summer budget, putting forward £12bn of public sector spending cuts. In the backdrop of increased pressure on public finances, it’s clear that now more than ever government departments need to invest efficiently making sure that every penny counts.

The combined public sector currently spends over £2bn annually on food and catering services across central offices, health, defence, schools and higher education. In fact, the UK government as a purchaser represents 5.5% of total food service sector sales. WRAP estimate that in 2016 food waste could cost the entire hospitality and foodservice sector £3bn, which would equate to an estimated £150m for the public sector.

Departmental spending breaks down as follows:

School dinners 29%
Further & Higher Education 29%
Ministry of defence 11%
Government department and head office 1%
Prisons 5%
NHS hospitals and care homes 25%

Source: 3rd PSFPI report, 2010

Schools and higher education combined total 58% of the total procurement costs. Research by WRAP shows that food waste is costing the education sector alone £250m. Even adjusting for private education, the total cost to the department for education is huge –English primary schools alone were found to generate 55,408 tonnes of food waste and 24,974 tonnes by secondary schools. The same study found that 77% (secondary ) and 78% (primary) of food wasted was avoidable.

WRAP also estimate that the services sector (Ministry of Defence and prisons combined) produces over 68,000 tonnes of food waste at a cost of £112m each year including food procurement, labour utilities and waste management.

Meanwhile in the NHS an Observer study of NHS data found that hospitals were wasting as much as 82,000 meals per day. The Campaign for Better Hospital food estimate this figure to be much higher at 400,000 uneaten meals thrown in the bin each day and point to quality as a key factor in the amount of waste being produced across the health service.

Some of the public sector recognise the huge savings opportunity that cutting avoidable food waste presents. All central government departments are supporters of the HaFSA Voluntary Agreement, and the NHS has developed detailed guidance, templates and checklists for hospital teams to manually monitor food waste.

In the education sector forward thinking schools like Didcot Girl’s school believe they have cut food waste by over 75% by making sure the menu is right. Cabbage is sautéed for example rather than boiled, sauces are made fresh and a range of vegetables are on offer for pupils with different tastes. The team there keep a close eye on what sells, making sure they are serving children what they want.

The challenge now is driving food waste prevention at scale rather than in individual schools or hospitals where early adopters champion the cause. Monitoring food waste effectively is key to driving change throughout the public sector, both from the perspective of understanding where food waste occurs throughout the production process as well as understanding the customer’s preferences.

Marc Zornes, Winnow CEO says “We have worked with a number of schools, hospitals and universities who all have found significant value in using the Winnow System to measure, benchmark and reduce food waste. Working in kitchens like these, we’re able to cut food waste in half on average with investment paying back in under 12 months Investing in reducing food waste is a sound business decision for the public sector, and we encourage catering managers to explore the potential for reducing costs for their respective operations.”

Given the size of the combined public sector operations there is still a huge opportunity for the rest of the public sector to make dramatic savings to the £2bn food and catering budget by reducing food waste.

Food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart says "Reducing food waste is a no-brainer and should be one of the highest priorities on the government's environmental agenda. Apart from the clear benefits to people and planet, there is also a huge opportunity for the public sector to realise a very real financial return by cutting food waste in schools, hospitals, and other institutions."

To accelerate change across the public sector senior policy makers should make reducing food waste a strategic priority across education, healthcare and services. Specifically they should:

  • Invest in training for kitchen teams to understand the true cost of food waste to their operations.
  • Invest in technology to accurately measure food waste and create meaningful benchmarks across sectors.
  • Empower teams to take action within their own operations to reduce food waste and reward creativity.
  • Continue to support the excellent work WRAP and other partners are pursuing to share best practice and information to reduce food waste.

Food waste is costing the public purse hundreds of millions of pounds every year. Given the backdrop of continued pressure on public sector spending, can we really afford make the most of this opportunity to reduce both waste and purchasing budget which could be better directed elsewhere?

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