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How 'Cinderella vegetables' can change a life 

Q&A: FareShare CEO Lindsay Boswell

September 01, 2013

Just what are "Cinderella vegetables," and how are they changing lives in the United Kingdom?

As Cargill announces a new three-year donation to UK-based hunger charity FareShare,  CEO Lindsay Boswell offers answers to those questions and more, and explains how his organization's efforts to cut food waste are doing more than feeding hungry families.

Your organization provides much of the food served by charities to those in need in the UK. Where does that food come from?

Our core area is on diverting surplus food from the food industry and making sure that we get hold of that food while it's still in date and still fit for human consumption. We then divert it directly to front-line charities that are providing a safety net for those who are vulnerable.

When there are 100,000 hungry people in your community and you have surplus food, as we do, this is the environmentally right – and the morally and ethically right – thing to do.

Why is there surplus food in the first place?

We refer to them as the "Cinderella vegetables." Like Cinderella, they can't go to the ball, though they really should. We work with the suppliers and the whole food supply chain to get hold of that produce that otherwise would go to waste.

Is this part of what some have called the 'ugly food' movement? Ensuring that healthy produce doesn't go to waste just because it's misshapen?

Yes, that's exactly it. But this is not second-class food. It is of the top quality and highly nutritious. But even nutritious food goes to waste, and that's where we step in.

In fact, our Manchester depot is based in the city's fruit and vegetable market. It's placed right next to all of the fresh supplies in order to make it easy for them to divert to us any surpluses that they've got. They literally just walk it up the road. We also send volunteers out "gleaning" in the fields with the permission of farmers and picking up the surplus crops.

What's unfortunate is that nobody's really sure how much food is truly wasted because so much of it doesn't make it into the [supply] chain in the first place.

[A report by the UK's Global Food Security program claims retailer standards can reject up to 40% of edible produce, which may never reach market due to its size and shape.]

Three years ago I would have had a tough job persuading a member of the public, firstly, that there was anybody hungry in the UK, and secondly, that there was substantial waste. And both of those bubbles have been burst. People are now more aware of the problem since [the economic downturn]. Businesses are beginning to see that buying habits are changing as a result. People aren't looking at "Cinderella" as being a pariah as much as they used to. They understand that we waste huge amounts of food, and that hunger is real.

So, this rescued food serves two needs: cutting waste and providing a meal for those in need.

Much more than that. If somebody's hungry and you give them some food, you fill their stomach, but a few hours later they're hungry again. If somebody's hungry and you sit them down and you give them some food, and you talk to them about why they're hungry, and you understand that the reason that they're hungry is they don't have a roof over their head, because they've got a mental health problem or they're being subject to domestic violence or they have a drug- or alcohol-related issue, and you've got case workers and supporters who can address those issues. Suddenly the benefit of that food is more than just a few hours of a full stomach.

It's a bit like a family at Thanksgiving. The family comes together because of the meal, but actually the real value is in the social bonds and the reconnecting that happens around the table.

That meal becomes the first step in them putting their lives back together again. And if the food wasn't any good, they wouldn't be there. The benefit is not just the food that's saved and the hearty meal it provides, but actually it turns a life around.

It makes the act of rescuing wasted food sound rather profound.

We like to say we're two charities rolled into one. We're an environmental charity, and we're a human poverty charity. By tackling one we're addressing the other, and that's why we have this real concentration on surplus food.