Food waste: 'We're at a critical time and need accelerated change'

In part three of her series on food waste, KATE RYAN talks to Conor Spacey about the issue, the Chef’s Manifesto, and food poverty
Food waste: 'We're at a critical time and need accelerated change'

Conor Spacey, executive head chef of FoodSpace and co-founder of the Chef's Manifesto.

CONOR Spacey wears many hats, each of them well. By day, he’s Culinary Director of FoodSpace, a contract catering firm based in Dublin serving up millions of meals annually for clients in industries such as tech and pharma.

Every other spare minute of the day, he is Ireland’s leading advocate on food waste and a co-creator of Chef’s Manifesto, a global network of chefs committed to finding better solutions to the global food system.

Launched in 2017, Chef’s Manifesto is a UN-backed project born from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 interlinked objectives seeking peace and prosperity for the global community by 2030. Eight thematic areas make up an easy-to-use Action Plan for chefs to make their kitchens more sustainable.

Six years on, Chef’s Manifesto is supported by over 1,100 chefs worldwide in 120 countries, and growing. Each participating nation has its own Advocacy Hub, Ireland’s is based at Grow HQ in Waterford, and Conor Spacey is Ireland’s representative at the international table.

It’s far from seats at tables of high international politics that Conor was raised, but without a doubt his upbringing taught him all he ever needed to know about valuing food.

“I grew up the youngest of four siblings with my parents in a housing estate with a small garden. My dad grew vegetables in what space he could, mainly potatoes, root veg, and runner beans, and my mum is an excellent cook so we always cooked from scratch,“ says Conor.

“We used everything, from repairing clothes to making sure all food was used; leftovers turned into other meals for later in the week. Every single thing was appreciated and used, but when I first came into the world of hospitality, I was astonished seeing waste outside of the home.

“I’m over 30 years cooking professionally, I guess you could say I’m a bit long in the tooth now. I didn’t set out to be a chef; I left school early at 16 and didn’t know what I wanted to do, so went to London. My first proper job was washing pots in a hotel.

“The whole buzz and adrenalin of the commercial kitchen was really cool, but I didn’t know anything about cooking. What I did know was my connection with food from growing up at home.”

Back then, Conor could see wasteful practices in commercial kitchens were wrong, but not because of how we talk about it now; how food waste is linked with climate change, for example.

“I don’t think the word sustainability existed back then; I just knew waste was wrong.”

It was only when Conor got his first head chef position in his early 20s that he was able to make the kind of changes he had waited years to do: how he procured food and better menu planning to eradicate waste.

“That was when things started to fall into place; buying seasonally, buying better, using everything, building relationships within the locality – everything that’s cool now,” he says.

Two decades on, Conor finds he’s still talking about the same topics.

“Is it a good or bad thing that we’re still talking about it, or that things have gotten progressively worse globally? But, I think, just because I’m still doing it doesn’t mean I’ve failed. 

"People want to know more now; we’re at a critical time and need accelerated change, but also we’ve never been more aware of what’s going on globally.”

Whilst food waste has been Conor’s expert topic in his professional career, getting uncomfortable with the unsavoury facts of food production such as deforestation, poor working conditions, and human trafficking are just as important.

It’s the responsibility of all chefs, he says, whether part of the Chef’s Manifesto project or not, to do due diligence around procurement and make better food choices for their business, customers, and the planet.

Finding ways to eradicate waste, from food, packaging or single use coffee cups, takeaway cartons and plastic bottles, should be considered as important.

“Chefs can be change makers,” Conor says, and utilising their platform, be that a restaurant, café, even their socials, is how knowledge from doing the due diligence trickles down to their customers.

“Look at everything you touch and everything you buy, and do the work. When you find the solutions, then talk to your customers about it so they can make their own changes,” says Conor.

“Someone at home is not going to Google for an hour what are the best teabags to buy: it’s Barry’s or Lyons and that’s it! But chefs can, and we can use what we find to talk to our customers.”

Wording on the back of a FoodCloud Hubs van. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Wording on the back of a FoodCloud Hubs van. Picture: Denis Minihane.

That’s what FoodSpace is about: investing time and effort turning old norms and practices in catering and hospitality on their head, and showing leadership in how radical change is not only possible, but is a driver for success.

“We’ve proved we can do large quantities of food in different locations and do it sustainably. We can make choices to eradicate waste and show a new way to showcase high volume food.”

Every year, FoodSpace commits to three goals. For 2023, one is better understanding of Irish farming.

“I feel I need to visit more farms, have more conversations and learn from farmers what items don’t sell, what crops the bigger market won’t buy off them and see what we can intercept at any of those stages. When we talk about food waste, that’s the waste you and I create, whereas food loss is what happens at the beginning of the food chain on the farm,” says Conor.

“The food system isn’t black and white. People say if vegetables were sold in supermarkets at true price, people would appreciate them more and waste less, and I used to agree. But as I got more involved in the food system as it is today, even in a country as economically strong like Ireland, the answer is not to increase food prices because we have massive food poverty in this country.

“Bringing the price of food up to encourage people to appreciate it more pushes even more people into food poverty.

“It’s a vicious circle and not black and white; that’s why I want to go back to the beginning, to food loss, farming and food production – where it all starts.”

I ask if he thinks food waste in Ireland has improved or worsened, and what work is still to be done.

“Unfortunately there’s a lot of work to be done, certainly food waste hasn’t gotten any better – domestically or nationally. Yes, chefs have improved in some cases, but it’s a ripple on the ocean,” Conor explains.

“I’ve done a lot of work with FoodCloud over the years. In March, 2021, I went back to their Tallaght warehouse because I wanted people to see the sheer size of the distribution centre (centres are also in Cork and Galway). It’s three stories high and filled to the roof with food that comes predominantly from supermarkets.

“The biggest thing I noticed was the increase in the amount of work FoodCloud have and more charities crying out for food. It hasn’t improved and they are getting busier, but that’s not a good news story. There are more charities looking for surplus food to give out to people, from all walks of life. Food poverty isn’t something affecting a minority any more.

“I never mean to stereotype, but I’ve met people that, if you passed them in the street, you wouldn’t think they are living in food poverty. They have good jobs, but because they have huge mortgages and their energy bills have gone through the roof, they’re at the stage where they are working to pay their bills but there’s nothing left at the end of it to feed their children.

“It’s a sad state of affairs that we live in a wealthy, developed country and there is food poverty everywhere. It exists in Ireland, but I don’t think people really understand how much. It’s a huge problem; this hidden poverty exists at every level of society and people don’t want to talk about it.”

 FoodCloud co-founders Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien at the FoodCloud Hub in Tallaght, Dublin.Picture: Naoise Culhane
 FoodCloud co-founders Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien at the FoodCloud Hub in Tallaght, Dublin.Picture: Naoise Culhane

Food poverty carries with it huge stigma, enabling it to grow and intensify so it becomes endemic. The issues of food waste and food poverty, therefore, go hand in hand.

“In a perfect world, FoodCloud wouldn’t exist; the fact that they do shows how wrong we are. The work they do is magnificent, but that they’re needed, growing and that more charities need their support on this little island tells us how bad it is.”

Later this year, in July, Conor will be releasing his first book, Wasted, for the second series of award-winning Blasta Books. It’s for everyone, he says, providing proven tips and inspiration for eradicating food waste, reducing grocery bills, and making food at home more sustainable.

Wasted is based on the biggest wasted foods, and the 30 recipes I’ve created use ingredients wasted at home, but also in restaurants. It’s a guide to help people open their eyes to the food they throw out, and say, here’s a recipe, I could cook this dish out of something I would have thrown away.

“So, if you’re motivated around food waste and the environment, it ticks the box; if it’s around reducing costs and saving money, it ticks a box; if it’s about supporting a better food system, it ticks a box. It will appeal to many different people,” says Conor.

Everyone could use a little extra help with knowing what to do with food waste, and Wasted will be an invaluable kitchen counter companion in every home. But, of all the tips, tricks and hacks, what’s Conor’s number one piece of advice?

“Planning!” he says. “I know it’s not very sexy, but it’s essential. Food is the one thing we don’t plan but it’s the one thing we spend most of our money on outside of mortgage or rent and bills, and if we don’t plan, it leads to waste.

“People want to make change, but can feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, but know that they can be part of the solution.

“Everyone is different - different thoughts, ideas, backgrounds - so it’s about giving people ideas that allows them to choose what suits their lifestyle and family.

“It’s about understanding the waste you’re going to produce by feeding your family and knowing that that waste is edible and as nutritious as the food it came from.”

Wasted, by Conor Spacey, is published by Blasta Books. Available to preorder at www.blastabooks.com, €15.

www.food-space.ie

www.sdg2advocacyhub.org/chefs-manifesto

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