The Great Food Rescue

My bike safely secured in the corner of the warehouse, I climb into the passenger seat of the van and buckle up. Paul hands me a clipboard with my induction questions, which I work through while he drives us through the suburban streets towards downtown Brisbane.

We’re doing the ‘city run’ today, though others will be going much further afield. We’ve set off with an empty van, and our aim is to come back with it empty as well. It’s going to require a juggling act that I’m curious to see.

This is the first of two organisations I’ll travel with, to see how they’re tackling the third largest contributor to climate change: food waste. Along the way I’ll end up seeing a side of Brisbane that most people don’t get to see.

We reach our first stop, a large Woolworth supermarket, and pull into the loading dock. Paul pushes the buzzer and a staff member soon greets us, glances at our van and disappears inside with barely another word exchanged. He soon brings out a few boxes full of egg cartons, frozen meats, vegetables and personal hygiene items — all foods that the supermarket would otherwise be throwing away.

It feels like dumpster diving, except legitimate; they’re simply handing us the food. We open up the back of the refrigerated van, and load the boxes. Each one is categorised and weighed by Paul on a large set of scales then stowed.

We set off again and as we drive Paul tells me his story. A chef for many years, he looked for something purposeful to do after retiring and found the organisation OzHarvest. After volunteering for two years he was made a staff member, working Mondays and Tuesdays. Each day is a little different, he says, and he gets to interact with all sorts of people, while learning a lot more about the city.

We reach another large Woolworths near the airport. This time they let us in and simply tell us where our boxes of food are stored. Paul has been here many times and knows the way.

It feels strange to be walking the back corridors of a large supermarket that I’ve only ever seen from the front before. The Woolworths staff see the OzHarvest vest I’m wearing and simply nod and smile as I go by. Not that I do anything other than stick to the tasks that Paul sets for me: fetching trolleys and boxes of food.

Sorting through the boxes they’ve set aside for us, there are unfortunately many items we can’t take, such as the meat that hasn’t been frozen, bananas that have turned black and some dairy products that are past their use-by-date. But there’s still three boxes of vegetables, a box of dairy products and a box of Pepsi cans that we can take.

Paul says that Woolworths is one of OzHarvest’s main partners, regularly donating food. They even donated a van. They try to do the right thing, he says, but sometimes there can be problems, such as the meat not being put in the freezer. It’s usually due to a miscommunication with their staff, or if certain staff are not really onboard with what OzHarvest is about.

We don’t take food that’s past its ‘use-by-date’, he tells me, though he’ll make a judgement call about food that’s past its ‘best-by-date’. He’ll later show me how some retailers also use a ‘display-until-date’, which is often five days before the use-by-date. It’s all because of the high cosmetic standards of some of these places, and just increases the amount of food that gets wasted.

Our next stop is a company called ‘Gate Gourmet’, where a guy with a hairnet wheels out a trolley piled high with bags full of single-serve snacks and cakes — the kind you’d find on most airlines — as well as some fruit. Again, few words are exchanged, suggesting this handover has been done many times before.

At another Woolworths in Ascot we pick up a box of frozen meat and a box of packets of chewing gum. At a place called ‘Jocelyn’s Provisions’ there are two crates of cakes and quiches waiting for us. Apparently all the unsold goods from their retail stores around the city are brought back to their production kitchen for OzHarvest to collect.

When I ask Paul why some items such as cans of Pepsi have been donated to us, he explains that it’s because they’re sold by the carton and  the carton was ripped. Some customer has likely come along, ripped it open to take one, and so the supermarket can no longer sell the rest.

Paul is full of stories of the outrageous items that OzHarvest has rescued from supermarkets. He tells me of the time a manager at an Aldi supermarket asked him if he can take some strawberries. Paul imagined there’d be a few punnets, but it turned out to be 45 trays of 15 punnets each — caused by an error with their automated ordering system.

One time he was given 65kg of French Camembert. It had shrunk in transport from Europe, so each small packet weighed 190g instead of the 200g on the label, and thus couldn’t be sold.

Another time he received a pallet-load of Magnum icecreams. The nutrition information on the packets had a typing error so the company was unable to sell them. They were also hard for OzHarvest to distribute because they needed to be kept frozen.

All of these would have been sent to landfill if not for OzHarvest.

OzHarvest was started by a woman named Ronnie Kahn who ran an events catering company and was so appalled by the amount of food waste she saw that she started delivering it to local charities.

What started with one woman in a van in Sydney has now become a fleet of about 50 vans across the country. Since 2004 when it was founded, the organisation has grown to having branches around Australia and around the world.

They’re also developing an app for regional areas, connecting charities up with supermarkets and other food retailers so they can arrange to rescue their waste food directly.

We finally reach our first drop off point: Keaton State High School in Brisbane’s northern suburbs. Two women, both named Hannah, come out to meet us in the car park and take several bags of snack foods, apples, cakes and a quiche from us. They’ll use these in their breakfast program for disadvantaged students, and Paul tells me that for some of them this might be the only reliable meal they eat.

We continue on, picking up boxes of vegetables, eggs, dairy, meat and fish from Aldi in Fortitude Valley, then a box of vegetables from Woolworths in Newstead. The Standard Market Company has two trolleys piled high with boxes of fruit and vegetables for us and Aldi in West End gives us three boxes of vegetables and potatoes.

Each time we leave all the bread they offer us, as most charities already tend to have arrangements with local bakeries, receiving more bread than they can get through.

After picking up some buckets of pre-made meals from the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, we’re off to visit a string of charities.

We stop at one called ‘Footprints’ and give them cakes and a few bags of snacks. At Arethusa Christian College in Springhill we hand over several boxes for them to use in their breakfast program or to make up food parcels for disadvantaged kids to take home.

Paul seems familiar with each of these places and what food they’re likely to want. Nonetheless, our van still seems to be overflowing with food, and each charity we visit seems to only be taking a small amount. I can’t help wondering how we’ll be able to offload it all.

‘BRIC Housing’ is an organisation that provides housing and support for men who have hit hard times, and an assortment of men, young and old, come out from the red brick apartment building to help carry boxes from the van. Inside the foyer they divvy up the food into their own bags to take back to their apartments, while some of it, such as the meat, is taken to the central kitchen for communal meals.

At last comes the big drop. We call in at what looks like an old Chinese restaurant but is now the Wesley Mission, with a community restaurant upstairs and a section downstairs where they make up food parcels to give away to those in need. Several young volunteers come out to meet us, taking box after box that Paul and I hand to them until the truck is just about empty.

All that remains is a few tubs of yoghurt that Paul has set aside because they’ve been requested by one of the OzHarvest chefs. Apparently this weekend they’re hosting a big cooking event where they will be teaching a large number of corporate office workers how to make meals out of rescued food. The meals they make will go to one of the charities. It’s apparently one of OzHarvest’s regular community engagement activities to raise money and awareness about food wastage.

Finally on our way back to OzHarvest headquarters we call in at a Subway store to pick up a box of leftover wraps and salads and leave them with a charity called ‘Romero’ which looks after refugees. The social workers there come out to collect the food and chat with us.

Paul tells me there are lots of cafes that are willing to donate their leftover food at the end of the day like this, particularly on Friday afternoons for those that don’t open on the weekends. OzHarvest sends in a van then for what’s known as the ‘cafe run’.

We arrive back at the warehouse with an almost empty van. I thank Paul for what’s been an incredible day, rescuing about 800kg of food — part of the over 180 tonnes rescued by the organisation nationally each week.

But, whilst OzHarvest is innovative and nimble, going door-to-door, when it comes to sheer volume of food rescued there’s a bigger player in town.

A couple of days later I ride my bike to the suburb of Morningside and into a colossal warehouse, filled with aisle upon aisle of towering shelves loaded with pallets of food.

This is Foodbank, and I’ll later learn that this Brisbane warehouse houses the largest food rescue operation in Australia. Whilst OzHarvest engages mostly with the retailers and supermarkets, Foodbank rescues bulk food mostly from the farmers and wholesalers, as well as the supermarket Coles.

After a safety induction I climb up into the huge truck with Stewart, or ‘Stew’ as he’s known and we set off along the Brisbane streets, riding high above the other vehicles.

We have two main stops. Our first is called ‘BRT’, which stands for Bundaberg Refrigeration Transport; a massive warehouse filled with stacks of giant cardboard boxes on wooden pallets. A forklift driver named Wes greets us and shows us where our boxes are: 12 pallets of zucchini’s, green beans and Roma tomatoes from Cross Family Farms. Wes loads them all onto our truck with the forklift and just like that, we’ve rescued 4,291kg of food that would otherwise have been thrown away.

Next we’re off towards the big one; the place that I’m really keen to see. We circle around the outside of a vast complex until we reach the entrance, and after passing the security gate, we make our way into the maze of sprawling long buildings and warehouses. There are trucks and vans everywhere, loading or unloading, with people in high vis vests attending them and forklifts whizzing about, prompting Stew to give me a dire warning to keep my eyes open and my wits about me.

We’re at the Brisbane Markets, one of the major produce distribution centres for the city. There’s a central market to where farmers truck in their produce, and around it are warehouses leased out by wholesalers, providores and retailers, who purchase the produce in bulk and deliver it around Brisbane.

‘How are ya, big fella?’ We’ve parked outside a wholesaler called ‘InFruit’ and are greeted by the friendly overseer named Glen. One of their forklift drivers begins loading huge pallets of ginger, apples, pears and avocados into the back of our truck.

While we wait Glen tells me about the black market for the CHEP pallets that all the boxes of produce are on. They’re apparently worth about $35 each, and it’s a hard task to keep track of who has borrowed pallets from whom, and how many. They’ve become their own currency, as each company tries to get its pallets back. I’m not sure how much to believe and suspect he’s spinning me a tall tale.

At the next warehouse run by ‘United Lettuce’ the coordinator is grouchy at Stew, claiming that he’s missing some pallets and that we owe him some. We leave there with a large batch of apricots.

Lastly we stop at the warehouse for ‘Lindsay Fresh’ and talk with a woman in the office named Deb who’s in charge of the paperwork. There’s no food for us today after all, it seems. ‘We got three sweet potato from here yesterday’ Stew tells her — by this he means three pallet-loads. Deb finally finds the paperwork and there are three bins for us containing who knows what.

As we drive out of the markets Stew and I chat about the huge quantities of food we’ve rescued this morning. He tells me he averages about 20-30 tonnes per day, but yet they’re lucky to get 10% of the waste produce from farmers who donate to them; and there are many more farmers who don’t donate at all.

Any industry has waste, he says, but if we can cut it down it can make a huge difference.

Arriving back at Foodbank I thank Stew and leave him to deal with unloading the truck. Inside I meet Nikki the marketing manager, who takes me around the warehouse. It can hold a thousand pallets, she tells me, and is typically refreshed every three days. She seems amused when I ask how they get the pallets down from the top shelf high above us. ‘Very tall forklifts’, she replies.

But where does it all go? In the front row of the warehouse we walk past boxes of different produce laid out as though in a market. Nikki tells me that the various frontline charities drive through and pick and choose what they need.

School breakfast programs is one example of where the food ends up, Nikki says. They have about 270 schools in Queensland receiving Foodbank food, with some feeding 350 students a day.

‘Fairshare’ is a charity they’re closely partnered with. They pick up food from Foodbank, make up meals with it and then give those back to Foodbank for distribution.

They have nutrition students working with them, exploring how to ensure that people who are only eating food from Foodbank are getting nutritionally complete meals.

In one of the aisles we come across a few people who are stocking up a trolley with frozen pre-made meals. They tell me they’re from a charity called ‘Mama-renes’, who give this food to homeless and disadvantaged people.

‘I think we’re gaining; we’re seeing changes in the food we’re receiving’, Nikki says, when I ask her if we’re making progress on tackling food waste. ‘The big retailers like Coles and Woollies want to get down to zero waste, and so this means less food that comes to us.’

On the other hand, on the first of July, Queensland introduced a levy on dumping of food waste — between $75 and $155 per tonne, depending on what they’re dumping — which incentivises companies to contact groups like OzHarvest and Foodbank when they have excess food. ‘We recently received 18 tonnes of biscuits as a donation. If they’d dumped that, it would have cost them $1350’, Nikki says.

The first Foodbank in Australia started in Sydney in 1993, and one was opened in Brisbane in 1995. When it was moved to this larger warehouse in 2001 they were collecting 600,000kg of food and groceries. In 2018/19 they recorded 12.7 million kilograms — a huge increase.

Michael, the CEO of Foodbank Queensland comes over to join us chatting. He says they receive about $75 million worth of food each year, and $200-$250 million nationally. This is only about 1% of the $20 billion worth of food that is wasted each year in Australia, about half of which is what households throw away.

Foodbank needs 35% more food to keep up with the demand from the charities, who are turning away about 12,000 people each month. About four million Australians experience food insecurity each year, and only half ask for help. ‘There’s a huge problem out there’, Michael says, ‘but we don’t receive enough food to solve it.’

Back at OzHarvest, after my van ride with Paul, I’d met with Amy, the QLD State Manager, and she had told me of the advocacy and education work they’ve been doing.

Retailers were initially reluctant to donate their excess food out of fear of being held liable if someone became sick from eating it. So Ronnie, the founder of OzHarvest, lobbied the government to change the laws and free them from liability.

The Federal Government has recently set a target of halving food waste by 2030, and Ronnie has initiated a working group in government, with big stakeholders such as the major supermarkets, to address the issue.

‘We see trends’, Amy says. ‘We feed back statistics to our food donors and it’s causing them to change their behaviours, to change how much food they produce.’

Paul and I rescued about 800kg of food on our OzHarvest van run and Stew and I rescued several tonnes of fresh produce in the Foodbank truck, all of which would otherwise have gone to landfill and worsened climate change. Thousands of people will now eat healthy meals this week who might otherwise have gone hungry. It also frees up the budgets of the charities to spend on the other important work they do.

I find it incredible to think that this great food rescue is happening every day, behind the scenes, in our suburbs, at the back of our shops and supermarkets — and it’s growing.

I finally say farewell to the staff at Foodbank and set off on my bicycle, feeling inspired and grateful for these organisations that are cleverly fighting food waste and hunger at the same time.

Huge thanks to Paul and Stew for sharing their food rescue runs with me, and to Amy, Nikki, Michael and everyone at OzHarvest and Foodbank for showing me around.

Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?