Addressing food sustainability during the lockdown

PhD student Mathieu Augustin has been helping to reduce food waste by providing meals and food products to people in Manchester during the coronavirus lockdown.

Helping to feed local communities

While writing his final thesis on geotechnical engineering, Mathieu has been collecting surplus food from supermarkets and bakeries on behalf of OLIO, an app specialising in redistributing food among local communities to prevent waste.

“When lockdown was announced and based on what was experienced in other countries, it was certain that many food businesses across the city would have to get rid of their stock to reduce food waste,” says Mathieu.

“OLIO tried to save as much food as they could. It started the #Cook4Kids and #Cook4Carers initiatives, which targets key workers and their children, as well as local families whose children would not be fed due to school closures.”

The initiatives enable volunteers to prepare spare meals from food items that have been collected from large supermarkets including Tesco and Morrisons. The food items, which are nearing expiry dates and cannot be sold, include fresh produce like washed lettuce, meat and fish, baked goods and spotted bananas.

The cooked meals are then photographed and advertised on the app, including their ingredients, location details and the time the meal can be collected by other app users. All food is distributed as soon as possible or by agreed times as specified by the food retailers.

Matt has been instrumental in helping grow the OLIO community in Manchester by signing up a vast amount of students and locals to be Food Waste Heroes and supporting them through the process. 

Spokesperson / OLIO

Becoming a food waste hero

“I’ve always been interested in volunteering and never believed in food waste so the more I learnt about tackling it, my interest grew,” added Mathieu, a French national who resided in Austria.

“When I came to Manchester in 2016, I tried to do the same as when I lived in Vienna. I looked for networks interested in fighting food waste. That’s when I came across OLIO and found out that they had plans to approach food companies in Manchester such as Pret A Manger.

“On first using the app, there was little activity in Manchester so I started on my own by collecting and distributing food surplus rescued from conferences and workshops in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering.  I asked people to tell me about any events or conferences taking place on campus that might have food left over.”

That was four years ago. Since then, the initiative has grown considerably. Indeed, Mathieu was recognised at this year’s Better World Awards at the University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering for outstanding contribution to environmental sustainability in the student category.

“As interest from staff grew, I started to recruit students and staff across the University to be ‘Food Waste Heroes’, OLIO’s scheme for food rescue volunteering. We’ve grown a network of 35 active student and staff volunteers who collect food, on campus and from organisations across Manchester, that we can distribute for free,” he says.

Meeting sustainability goals

OLIO offers an ideal solution for food businesses that want to prevent daily food waste. It’s also a great resource for the University – working with local charities and individuals who provide food to people with financial hardships. 

“I was one of the first Manchester heroes and I’m now an ambassador so it’s great seeing how the volunteers are helping to provide food waste solutions and contributing to the University’s sustainability objectives,” Mathieu comments.

“I enjoy the idea of fighting food waste and the more I get into it, the more I understand how it fits into the climate agenda as food waste is a large source of carbon dioxide emission.

“We used to go to all of the Pret shops in Manchester city centre every day and would easily collect 15–20 kilogrammes of leftover food. When you’re on foot, as I always was, that amount was staggering.”

Adapting food distribution during lockdown

Volunteers like Mathieu have needed to adapt to restrictions on food collection, preparation and delivery during lockdown.

“I used to have up to 15 people in my kitchen during food collections but that’s all changed now due to no contact, so I have to make sure I follow the rules of physical distancing and no-contact pickups,” he explains.

Volunteers have been given guidelines to make sure they are protecting themselves and others by washing their hands thoroughly, even more so than before. Volunteers also have to ensure their kitchens are clean when handling food and that no food preparation or collections are made when they are feeling unwell.

Social challenges

The challenges are not just hygienic. “Many people choose to volunteer because of the social aspect of seeing others and having a quick chat when food is being collected, but that doesn’t happen any more, which some people miss,” Mathieu explains.

“Volunteering is less social at the moment and it takes longer to collect and distribute the food due to social distancing.

“In Vienna and here in Manchester, volunteering increased my social life and I used to cook for my friends using the food we collected and couldn’t distribute. Clearly people can’t meet up like this at the moment.

“But people can still get involved by downloading the app and if you decide to become a volunteer or arrange to collect food, it’s a nice way to meet your neighbours. Volunteering takes quite a lot of commitment but it’s really about supporting your local community.

“I recently met some of my neighbours for the first time as I had many Easter eggs to distribute which we collected from a food warehouse on behalf of the local council.

“There were so many that I haven’t managed to get rid of them all. If anyone’s interested in having a belated Easter egg, then get in touch!”

If you are interested in volunteering or would like to arrange a food collection near you, visit the OLIO website.