New Zealand’s food waste problem: What are we doing wrong?

Want to eat well, save money and do your bit for climate change? Meet some Kiwi food waste campaigners who suggest starting with your own fridge.

Nothing went to waste when Wellington chef Vicki Young was growing up.

Vicki, whose parents and grandparents were market gardeners in Levin, says her family feasted like kings on food rejected by others.

“My nana never wasted anything,” Vicki says. “She’d pickle sweet, delicious broccoli stems and make vinegar from apple peels. We’d buy the fish frames from the local chippy and eat ‘tag three’ produce [fruit and vegetables deemed minimum quality by supermarkets] in the most delicious meals.”

That “eat everything” ethos was occasionally embarrassing (Vicki remembers the shame of her parents stopping to pick watercress a long time before foraging was cool), but she now recognises her good fortune.

“That’s where I really learnt to appreciate all parts of produce,” she says. “My upbringing has had a huge influence on how I cook as a chef. I love translating my ‘all taste, no waste’ philosophy into cooking.”

If everyone in Aotearoa had the same kind of formative food experiences as Vicki, perhaps our country wouldn’t have such a shameful food waste problem. According to research carried out for Love Food Hate Waste in 2018, the average Kiwi household chucks out 164kg of food a year.

Collectively, that means we’re wasting more than 157,000 tonnes of food annually (enough to feed the population of a city like Dunedin for nearly three years). This stinking pile, which is worth about $1.17 billion, generates more 400,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.

You don’t have to be an economist or a scientist to know there’s something very wrong about these figures.

What makes them even more unpalatable is that much of this food waste – probably a bit more than half – is classed as “avoidable”. In other words, we’re throwing away perfectly good food for no good reason. It’s enough to ruin your appetite, right?

Learning about New Zealand’s food waste problem certainly spurred Sarah Burtscher into action. In 2021, she published Waste Not, Want Not (Bateman Books, $40), a collection of recipes and tips to help reduce the amount of kai wasted in Kiwi homes. The book showcases what Sarah dubs “fridge cleaner cooking” – turning banana peel into cake (recipe page 89) and plant food, rescuing “forgotten” vegetables for soup, repurposing lettuce leaves into smoothies or a dressing.

“I find it hard to throw food out and I feel really guilty if I do,” she says. “I wanted people to realise that what they do in their home kitchens can make a difference.”

Sarah, who grew up on a remote high-country farm near Tekapo, learnt how to make the most of everything from an early age. She’s determined to pass on the lessons she picked up from her mother and grandmother to her children – and other households.

“Living remotely means you have to get good at doing things on the spot,” she says. “It’s harder for people in the city, especially if you’re working insane hours. But you can do it.”

On a mission

When she worked in ski resorts in Colorado, MichaI Garvey used to feel sick about the copious amounts of food binned after buffet breakfasts every morning. It’s fair to say that she’s been on a bit of a mission to reduce food waste ever since.

In 2019, Michal founded Foodprint, an app that connects food businesses with customers keen to buy discounted food at the end of the day. Around 400 eateries in Auckland and more than 60 in Wellington have already signed up, saving more than six tonnes of carbon emissions so far.

She says the app offers multiple benefits: “Eateries see customers they’ve never seen before and customers get to try somewhere new at less than full price, plus they know they’re spending with a conscious business. They can eat their cake and feel good about it.”

In her personal life, Michal tries hard to walk the talk. She’s been a vegetarian since she was 16 (“being plant-based makes leftovers easier,” she says) and at home in Auckland she feeds any vegetable scraps to her worm farm.

When lockdown saw her living in a Wellington apartment for longer than anticipated, she used the ShareWaste NZ website to find someone willing to put her food scraps in their compost bin.

“A lot of the time people use their living situation as an excuse for their food waste but there are lots of ways to get around it,” she says. “I’m by no means perfect, but I make lots of effort.”

Wonky is just fine

Perfection is overrated anyway, say Angus Simms and Katie Jackson. The couple, who founded fruit and vegetable subscription scheme Wonky Box in May 2021, are on a mission to prove that imperfect is good enough.

“All the fruit and vegetables we see on social media and advertising look perfect, so that’s what people expect,” Katie says. “They’ve lost that link to what real food is like.”

After moving to New Zealand from London in November 2020, Angus and Katie were shocked at the price of food, and dispirited when farmers and orchardists told them that produce that tasted great but looked a bit “wonky” wasn’t acceptable to supermarkets.

“There’s not much competition here, so it’s easy for supermarkets to dictate really strict appearance criteria,” Angus says. “In London there are lots of initiatives in this space, so we thought we might give it a go here.”

Neither comes from a food background (New Zealander Angus worked in finance, Katie was a nurse) but they started door-knocking growers in the Horowhenua region, offering them a channel through which to sell surplus fruit and vegetables.

Farmers were reluctant to sign up at first, but Angus and Katie persisted and now have 15 growers filling boxes for several hundred clients in Wellington. Subscribers in the capital can sign up to a weekly Wonky Box delivery, containing a pick ’n’ mix of farm-fresh fruit and veges.

“A lot of the stuff we put in the boxes is surplus, rather than wonky, like rhubarb that’s just grown too long to fit into a supermarket display box or cucumbers that are slightly bent so they can’t go through the packaging machine,” Angus says.

Overseas, experts reckon around 25 percent of produce is deemed to be waste before it makes it off the farm. Angus and Katie are hopeful that their early success bringing not-quite-perfect but still delicious Horowhenua vegetables to Wellington eaters will mean they can introduce the Wonky way to “the golden triangle” of market garden-rich Tauranga, Hamilton and Auckland.

“We’re learning as we go,” Angus says. “But every bit makes a difference.”

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