Food

Food waste: how to get cheap grub and help save the planet

Donna Ferguson with scones and macaroons from Harriets Cafe Tearooms, via the Too Good To Go app, which saved her more than £13.

 Donna Ferguson with scones and macaroons from Harriets Cafe Tearooms, via the Too Good To Go app, which saved her more than £13. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Cafe owner Mehmet Boyraz is trying to reduce his food waste for religious reasons. Upmarket tearoom manager Catia Teixeira does it to avoid chucking freshly baked scones in the bin. And sandwich shop customer Ruoyun Hui wants to save money and the planet.

All three are enthusiastic users of Too Good To Go, an app that enables restaurants and cafes to sell food they would otherwise have thrown away – thereby offering customers who care about food waste the chance to grab something cheap to eat and make a difference at the same time. Rock-bottom prices are not unusual: to £10.60 worth of great food for £3.49, anyone?

I personally discovered it late one evening, sitting in my local Yo! Sushi restaurant in central Cambridge. The restaurant was starting to close and the conveyor belt, which had been full of delicious-looking, freshly made food, was suddenly completely empty.

“Where has all the food gone?” I asked the waitress. Some of it, I was told, would be thrown away, but the restaurant does also use Too Good To Go to get rid of food.

Too Good To Go app
 The Too Good To Go app.

After downloading the app, I saw that a dozen restaurants within walking distance were offering “magic bags” of leftover food. Each was apparently worth between £8 and £12, but would cost just £3 to £4.

To get a bag, I would have to pay for it through the app – without knowing exactly what would be in it, though there’s a description of what sort of food is sold at that particular place – and agree to collect it during a short window of time allotted by the restaurant.

A wide range of scrumptious delights were on offer, from a global food buffet and waffles to croissants, noodles, cakes and sandwiches.

But would all this half-price leftover food taste OK? Would I really get good value for money and rescue food from the bin at the same time? Or was Too Good To Go, in fact, too good to be true?

I decided to try it out. I bought my first lunch with the app for £3.49 from Cafe Bread & Butter, a small cafe not far from the River Cam that I had never been to before, even though it was a short 10-minute stroll from my house.

Unfortunately, I could only collect my lunch between 2.30pm and 3.30pm, which meant I was starving by the time I arrived. I also had no choice about what I would be given: it turned out to be a jacket potato with cheese, beans and salad, a packet of salt and pepper crisps (again, I couldn’t choose which flavour) and a strawberry Ribena.

Luckily, I love jacket potatoes. And knowing I had rescued perfectly good food from the dumpster seemed to add an extra layer of enjoyment to my meal.

I was also impressed by how much food I was given. Normally, that lunch would have cost £6.50, says Boyraz. He signed up with the app three months ago. “I thought stopping food waste sounded like a good idea. People seem to love it.”

He mainly sells yesterday’s baked potatoes through the app. “I do it partly because I’m concerned about the environment and want to support people in my local community, but also because in my culture, wasting is not a good thing. I’m Muslim, and in our holy book there is a verse that says: eat, drink – but don’t waste.”

The app brings in new customers, he says. Like me, most of the people who purchase food from his cafe via the app have never been in before.

A few days later, I collect my next magic bag from Benets Cafe, opposite King’s College Chapel, at 3.30pm. It contains a chicken pesto sandwich and a ham and cheese croissant – and costs just £3.59.

At the counter I meet a hard-working university researcher, Ruoyun Hui, collecting her own magic bag. She says she has used the app a handful of times, “usually when I’m busy with work and miss mealtimes”. She does it both to get a bargain and to help stop food waste – and says she’s happy with what she gets. “Most of the time it’s good value.”

We are told the food in the bag must be eaten that day, but I put the croissant in the fridge to eat for breakfast the next morning. It tastes just fine.

I also visit Harriets Cafe Tearooms, well-known in Cambridge for its afternoon teas. The app says I can collect my magic bag between 5pm and 6pm, but when I turn up just before 6pm, the cafe is locked shut. I bang on the door and show the app through the window, and luckily a waiter opens up and hands me a beautiful box wrapped in ribbon. Not knowing what I would find inside was exciting, and frankly I couldn’t wait to unwrap it.

Donna Ferguson enjoys a meal made with food sourced through the Too Good to Go app.
 Donna Ferguson enjoys a meal made with food sourced through the Too Good to Go app. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

When I do, I find four cheese scones, normally £3.20 for two, and two broken pistachio macaroons, normally £2.10 each. In total this should have cost me £10.60, but I paid £3.49. I share the scones out that evening with friends, and everyone tells me how good they taste. The pistachio macaroons, which I would never normally have bought, are particularly tasty.

“Our scones are freshly made every day and, if we don’t sell them, we have to bin them, which is a waste,” says tearoom manager Catia Teixeira a few days later. “We try to make only enough for how busy we think we’re going to be – but if it’s a quiet, sunny day, we may not sell as many as we anticipate.”

The cafe used to give leftover food away to local homeless people at closing time, but encountered some problems. “People started coming in the middle of the day, and disturbing the other customers. So we had to stop.”

The food on offer through Too Good To Go is undoubtedly very cheap – but since the only way to buy the leftover food is through the app, only customers who own a smartphone can access the magic bags. Then again, the primary aim of this app isn’t to tackle food poverty, but to make sure leftover food gets eaten by someone, regardless of who that is, explains co-founder Jamie Crummie. “Our ultimate goal is to rescue food. It’s about trying to create a solution that is simple, engaging and fun, and change people’s attitudes and perceptions about food waste.”

He is hoping the app will help to ease the impact of food production on the environment. “We are trying to make a stand against climate change.”

More than 22,000 restaurants and cafes in 11 countries have signed up, and magic bags can be bought in around 120 towns and cities across the UK. Since its launch in 2016, about 15m meals have been rescued through the app, Crummie says. “But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the amount of food that we need to save.”

Other ways to cut food waste

 Karma Like Too Good To Go, this is another app that hooks up consumers with leftover food in restaurants. But in terms of the UK, only restaurants in London appear to be using it at the moment. It’s also available in Paris and across Sweden.

The Olio food-sharing app
 The Olio food-sharing app. Photograph: Annabel Staff

 Olio This is an app that allows you to give away food you don’t want. At the time of writing, only three items were available for collection within 5km of my home in Cambridge: a jar of Ballymaloe relish, some cat food and a couple of espresso pods. However, if I lived in north London, 44 items would be available within 5km.

 FoodCloud This app helps charities and community groups – from homeless hostels to breakfast clubs – obtain surplus food from retailers and other companies. Based in Dublin, FoodCloud operates in Ireland and the UK.

 Out-of-date food websites such as Approved FoodClearance XLLow Price Foods and Star Bargains allow you to buy cheap food online that is either nearing or past its “best before” date (but not, crucially, past its “use by” date). Often you can find amazing bargains on tinned food, crisps, biscuits and rice. Just watch out for the delivery fee – it can be expensive.

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