Quantcast
Popular
Food items redistributed by The Free Store include salads, sandwiches, pies, rice meals and other pastries. Benjamin Johnson

How a Free Grocery Store Is Cutting Food Waste—and Hunger

By Rina Diane

On a windy late afternoon, dozens of people have lined up in front of a 20-foot-long repurposed shipping container situated on a church parking lot. Inside, volunteers are unloading food items from custom-built shopping carts and stacking them onto rows of shelves. There are hearty rice meals and healthy salads, thick sandwiches, pies and other savory and sweet items. This is just another busy day for The Free Store.

The Free Store is a nonprofit organization that redistributes surplus food from local businesses in New Zealand's capital city, Wellington, to those in need. It was inspired by a two-week art project in 2010 where artist Kim Paton filled a shop with surplus food items from bakeries and supermarkets. Anyone visiting the shop could take what they wanted free of charge.


"I heard that some of the food in the shop was from cafés," said Benjamin Johnson, 28, co-founder and director of The Free Store. "It was food left over at the end of the day that was still in a good state. Imagine if there's more food from cafés and restaurants in the city that is good to eat but is just being thrown away. We could do something about that."

Food waste is a costly issue. Each year, Kiwis throw away 872 million New Zealand dollars ($625 million) worth of food—that's over 120,000 tons of food per year. However, this is only a fraction of the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted annually around the world. It's also a small percentage compared to the 88 million tons of food wasted in Europe or the 66.5 million tons of food wasted in the U.S. Yet there are families going hungry all around the country. According to UNICEF, 28 percent of New Zealand children—about 295,000—live in poverty.

"We saw the potential in an untapped food supply. You had food that was perfectly good to eat, and then you had people that were hungry. We could facilitate a connection between the two," Johnson said. Taking the art project as inspiration, Johnson and a group of friends decided in November 2010 to transform The Free Store model into a long-term sustainable community initiative.

People lining up for food at The Free Store.Benjamin Johnson

The Free Store currently has 65 suppliers around the city center—cafés, restaurants, bakeries and catering companies donating food they are unable to sell by the end of the day. The local Neo Café & Eatery has been donating scones, muffins and other unsold baked items to the store for more than three years. Before partnering with The Free Store, the café either gave its leftover food to staff members or threw it in the trash.

"It's good to see our food utilized in a way that benefits people," said store manager Luke Crawford.

Johnson said that they are redistributing an estimated 800 to 1,500 food items each weeknight, averaging about 250,000 food items a year. He estimates that's worth a retail value of $1.45 million New Zealand dollars ($1.04 million U.S.).

These food items are handed out from 6 to 7 p.m. every weeknight to around 100 people from diverse backgrounds, including the homeless, unemployed, those with long-term health issues, immigrant and refugee families, students, and those who were recently released from prison.

The Free Store's volunteers collect food items from cafes, restaurants, bakeries, and catering companies using these custom-built shopping carts.Benjamin Johnson

"There are no conditions on who can come to The Free Store," Johnson explained. "There are no criteria. Anybody can come for whatever reason and take whatever they want."

More than a solution just to curb waste, The Free Store has grown into a community food source.

Before volunteering for The Free Store, 53-year-old Vincent Tito was lining up for food. "I was in debt. I was not eating properly, and my body was getting weak," he said. He regained strength through the greens and meat he got from The Free Store. But he didn't want to keep receiving—he also wanted to give. He volunteered to make coffee for customers waiting for the store to open and has been The Free Store's coffee manager for more than two years.

The Free Store has now spread to other regions within New Zealand. There are four stores across the country—all set in motion by the local communities themselves, adapting The Free Store model in their own ways. Operations rely on grants from foundations and trusts, donations, and volunteers. They also conduct fundraising events each year.

A Free Store volunteer stacking food items on shelves.Benjamin Johnson

But the effort to reduce food wasteby redistributing surplus food is fast becoming a global movement. Similar initiatives are in place around the world: Food from the Heart in Singapore collects and redistributes unsold bread from bakeries; FoodBlessed in Lebanon turns unwanted food from supermarkets, farms, and food retailers into free meals; and in the U.S., Copia has created a mobile app to schedule pickups of surplus food, which is then delivered to local nonprofits.

Johnson believes that The Free Store concept can be replicated around the world. "All you need is a space to operate from, surplus food, people who need the food and will come and take it, volunteers, and a committed group of people who can actually do it," he said. "There has to be local ownership. In every area where there's a Free Store, there needs to be a deeply rooted community of people."

What started as an art project has become a community lifeline.

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Freight Farms

Why This Montana Farmer Grows Food Year-Round in Shipping Containers

By Isabelle Morrison

Kim Curren, owner of Shaggy Bear Farm in Bozeman, Montana, has worn many hats. She worked in the solar power industry for 15 years, owned her own café bookstore and worked a stint as a medical case manager. In 2016, Curren decided to try her hand at farming, because why not?

Keep reading... Show less
Food
Sam Murphy

Got Nondairy Alternative Milk?

By Sam Schipani

More and more, ecologically minded milk consumers are turning to nondairy products to minimize their carbon hoofprints. Sales of almond milk shot up by 250 percent between 2011 and 2016. Meanwhile, consumption of dairy milk has plummeted 37 percent since the 1970s, according to the USDA.

Keep reading... Show less
Food
A burger made with a blend of beef and mushrooms. Mushroom Council

'Blended Burger' Allows a Simple Shift to More Sustainable Eating

By Richard Waite, Daniel Vennard and Gerard Pozzi

Burgers are possibly the most ubiquitous meal on Americans' dinner plates, but they're also among the most resource-intensive: Beef accounts for nearly half of the land use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food Americans eat.

Although there's growing interest in plant-based burgers and other alternatives, for the millions of people who still want to order beef, there's a better burger out there: a beef-mushroom blend that maintains, or even enhances, that meaty flavor with significantly less environmental impact.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Old White Truck / Flickr

The Last Straw? EU Official Hints Ban on Single-Use Plastic Across Europe

A top EU official hinted that legislation to cut plastic waste in Europe is coming soon.

Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, made the comment after Britain's environment minister Michael Gove, a pro-Brexiter, suggested that staying in the EU would make it harder for the UK to create environmental laws such as banning plastic drinking straws.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
Flare from gas well. Ken Doerr / Flickr

Court Orders Trump Administration to Enforce Obama-Era Methane Rule

A federal judge reinstated a widely supported methane waste rule that President Trump's administration has repeatedly tried to stop.

Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court for Northern California ruled Thursday that Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) decision to suspend core provisions of the 2016 Methane and Waste Prevention Rule was "untethered to evidence."

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
On Jan. 24, 2017 President Donald Trump signed a memorandum to expedite the Keystone XL permitting process. Twitter | Donald Trump

Inside the Trump Admin's Fight to Keep the Keystone XL Approval Process Secret

By Steve Horn

At a Feb. 21 hearing, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the Trump administration must either fork over documents showing how the U.S. Department of State reversed an earlier decision and ultimately came to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, or else provide a substantial legal reason for continuing to withhold them. The federal government has an order to deliver the goods, one way or the other, by March 21.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Health

New Black Lung Epidemic Emerging in Coal Country

In a study released this month by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), federal researchers identified more than 400 cases of complicated black lung in three clinics in southwestern Virginia between 2013 and 2017—the largest cluster ever reported.

However, the actual number of cases is likely much, much higher as the government analysis relied on self-reporting. An ongoing investigation from NPR has counted nearly 2,000 cases diagnosed since 2010 across Appalachia.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Dennis Schroeder / NREL

The Facts About Trump’s Solar Tariffs – Who Gets Hurt? Who Gets Helped?

By John Rogers

The solar-related shoe we've been expecting has finally dropped: President Trump recently announced new taxes on imported solar cells and modules. There's plenty of downside to his decision, in terms of solar progress, momentum and jobs. But will it revive U.S. manufacturing?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!