The people changing the way we eat

Social enterprises are on a mission to overturn the unsustainable food economy and empower consumers, bite by bite, writes Anna Turns

The status quo is being challenged by innovative social enterprises promoting a fairer food system. More people want to understand the provenance of food and they’re demanding produce that is healthy for them and the environment. The modern supply chain results in enormous wastage of food and energy and there’s potential to change how we grow, distribute and eat food – we can even get better at managing leftovers.

The issue of food waste was thrust into the limelight with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV mission to secure wonky veg a place on supermarket shelves. But whilst big retailers have their part to play, astonishingly half of food waste takes place at home.

“Only 2% takes place at retail store level,” says Tessa Cook, co-founder of OLIO, the food sharing app. “The average UK family bins 22% of their weekly shop, worth £700 per year, so we are half of the problem. The exciting flipside is that we can be half of the solution.”

With over 50,000 members nationwide, OLIO connects people by offering a simple, fun and sociable way to share food, whether you have inadvertently baked too many cupcakes or harvested a glut of carrots from your allotment. By actively encouraging face-to-face exchanges to share surplus food, OLIO harnesses modern technology to reconnect us with people who live just around the corner.


Social enterprises such as OLIO help to re-establish a circular system with less consumer waste. Tessa explains why we are reverting back to basics: “Pre-industrialisation food production was all done hyper-locally, it was all organic and there was no sense of waste. People knew what they were eating and where it came from. With industrialisation, people moved into cities and food was shipped across the world, and this linear supply chain is wasteful. People realise it’s just not acceptable to be wasting food, our most precious resource on this scale.”

Tessa refers to OLIO users as ‘conscious consumers’, many of whom are proactively kickstarting this food sharing trend in their local area. The demand is astounding – over a third of items added to the app are requested within an hour.

One person’s rubbish is another’s  treasure. So when Londoner Ilana Taub wanted to tackle the issue of food waste head on, she chatted to market traders to find out what was available in useable quantities. She discovered that apples were one of the most wasted fruits in the UK. In 2013, she co-founded SNACT to transform tonnes of surplus apples, bananas, mangoes and berries into healthy fruit leather snacks while paying farmers a fair wage to harvest it.

Small shifts in behaviour make a big difference, and in Scotland, one woman drives social change by baking bread. Debra Riddell’s belief that, “everyone deserves to have access to real healthy bread,” is the foundation of Breadshare, the pioneering community bakery she runs in Edinburgh with her husband Geoff Crowe. “We make unpretentious bread – it’s not about being artisan. We bring it back down to earth and encourage everyone to bake bread,” she says.

“We bake during the day and we have an inclusive policy so we welcome volunteers with disabilities, mental health issues and the unemployed, we never turn anyone away,” says Debra, whose autistic son Alex, 28, loves working as chief seaweed oatcake maker.

A community bakery is driven by social objectives rather than financial ones, and Debra promotes the health benefits of real organic bread, whilst making it accessible by price and by selling bread in places that other people aren’t. Breadshare actively encourages customers to take sourdough starter home to have a go, and they run school workshops.

In 2012, Breadshare, a community interest company, baked 300 loaves a week. Today, that number has risen to 3000, with two shops and a cafe, but Debra’s ambition goes beyond this. “If we grew any bigger, we’d become semi-industrial, so instead we help other people establish community bakeries.”

Debra keeps everything ecologically sustainable with a zero waste policy. “We make to order so we don’t have much excess, but we link with food sharing groups and The Real Junk Food Project, and we send leftovers not fit for human consumption to a pig farm or it gets composted.” She’s experimenting with ways to implement a circular food system, making healthy olive and pumpkin seed croutons from loaves that haven’t sold, and hoping to build a local organic single-origin flour supply.

Food on a plate should have a story to tell – about the fruit farm it was grown on, the local person who made it or the authentic skills used to bake it. Producing, sharing and eating wholesome food not only connects us to the surrounding landscape, but it gives us a taste of a better future. Join the revolution!


Anna Turns

Anna Turns

Since graduating with a biology degree from Oxford University, Anna has worked in TV and magazine production. She now works as a freelance journalist based in Devon, specialising in sustainability, food and marine issues and is an ambassador for Zero Waste Week in September.