Fighting food waste

Food waste affects all links in the food chain, which is why Mireia Barba, President of the Espigoladors Foundation, urges consumers to be part of the solution


In 2014, Mireia Barba decided to start Espigoladors with two other people. The foundation gives a second chance to perfectly consumable foods that have been left out of the market. And to people at risk of social exclusion, linking the work of 149 farmers, over 2,000 volunteers and 80 food-receiving social organisations.

What gave you the idea for this?

I’d always wanted to do a social and sustainable project. We started in 2013 because we wanted to address three issues: reducing loss due to food waste, access to fresh food for people in a vulnerable situation, and generating job opportunities for this same group. As a result of the 2008 crisis, social needs such as food shortages increased. Poor nutrition led to various diseases, childhood obesity, etc. Around 45% of the fruit and vegetables that are planted end up in the rubbish. In addition, half of the chain loses value.

What are we doing wrong?

Good question. There’s also another fact that should make us open our eyes: one in three foods produced in the food chain is lost. The food system needs to be changed from top to bottom, including people’s consumption habits. Food is lost for a variety of reasons. In the case of fruit and vegetables, it’s especially due to aesthetics and falling prices at source.

At what point was there a cultural change that led to this waste? Because post-war hunger is not such a distant memory.

Waste is a structural problem. It’s bad for us, as a society, to have this great disconnect between the countryside and the city. We don’t know the origins of the food we eat, we’ve lost our awareness and therefore don’t value it properly. Social change has lost its generational place in the kitchen: women were the main cooks and now society, which is in such a hurry, doesn’t even know how to buy or cook food.

At what point in the chain do we start losing food?

Food waste affects all links in the food chain, and we’re all to blame. That’s why consumers are also part of the solution. Right now, we don’t even have studies with up-to-date data on how much food is lost. There are many causes for each stage.

How does the already chronic impact of low prices suffered by farmers affect waste? Do they have crops that have no commercial outlet despite being viable?

Yes, when prices fall below cost. Then it doesn’t make sense to harvest them, on the contrary, in fact, because it represents another expense. What do they do? They call us so we go and harvest it, and we channel it to the entities we work with.

Destroying crops has a cost, so Espigoladors saves them money right?

Yes, there are costs, but at the same time for the producer these foods also have a value in terms of time, human resources, water and often emotions. Farmers are committed to production, and that’s why they call us: they want to see it at least given away rather than destroyed. Harvesting is also a very powerful awareness-raising tool, because it brings together a lot of people - the volunteers who do the harvesting - who may have nothing to do with agriculture. They’re doing an environmental activity with a social impact, which allows them to get to know the reality of food production.

What’s Espigoladors’ process for managing volunteer?

We have a job pool of approximately 2,500 registered people, who sign up according to personal availability - some people say they can only come at the weekend, others on weekdays - and also by region. We now operate in the counties of Girona, Maresme, Tarragona and Baix Llobregat. When there’s a harvest, we find out 24 or 48 hours beforehand, and we get into gear: we contact the volunteers in the area and do it with the maximum number of people we think can do the harvest by hectare.

Is this model exclusive to Espigoladors? Does it exist in other countries?

At the beginning, we were inspired by two projects. One is in the United States called DC Central Kitchen, and the other is in the United Kingdom. We chose to focus on fresh fruit and vegetables, because we want to give access to food to people in vulnerable situations and adapt to our culture of volunteering. We’ve been perfecting the volunteer recruitment system, and now we’re working with a more agile web platform.

What financial support do you receive?

The foundation had three sections and now there are two. One is harvesting, which works through grants and donations. And another line of funding is projects: aimed at knowledge, awareness and research. The latter is also outsourced, and provides services. For example, for field quantification, we may be contracted by a local authority or a company. We do workshops, training in schools, cooking... Everything revolves around food waste.

What do you teach when it comes to education?

In schools, we do learning projects. Sessions are held with a group of 20 students to explain what food waste is, with role-playing games. Then a project is created to minimise it, wherever the students want, and that will impact the neighbourhood or municipality. They aren’t lectures, but rather dynamic classes.

Is healthy eating impossible for young people? With those families who go around the world with children and teenagers who only eat chicken, pasta and ice cream...

Many schools already have their own gardens and more work is generally being done on sustainability than a few years ago. As well as school, young people are becoming more and more aware through their families. We come from a generation that ate industrial pastries for snacks. The growing trend now is to bring fruit to school for breakfast. There’s still a lot of work to be done. One basic change would be to have a cooking subject. Barcelona City Council has made a commitment to providing local and/or organic food in school canteens. It’s vital that schools teach what food is, how to handle it and how to cook it. In the end, we all need to be able to cook at one time or another. And in doing so we’re promoting a number of values, such as personal independence, gender equality...

The Es-Imperfect brand is the only one that transforms and sells surplus quality products.

Yes, this year it has been transformed into a company that receives subsidies to employ the more vulnerable, and employs 14 people. It gives second chances to people and food. It’s a food waste innovation lab. We recover food left over from the harvest. For example, you can’t really give away an artichoke with very hard leaves and a lot of hair, but it can be turned into artichoke pâté. A lot of handling is required and therefore you need a lot of workers. We make stir-fries, pâtés and jams, and they’re sold online, in small greengrocers’, in Bonpreu-Esclat, sustainable baskets as a gift..., at about six hundred points of sale.

Is enough being done here in Catalonia?

This year, Barcelona is the world food capital, which is why many healthy eating and sustainability initiatives have been launched. We’ll see what happens with these public policies.

interview food

Memories of peaches

As a child, Mireia was taken to her grandfather’s orchard. She’s a consumer who is aware of waste because she has the taste of those peaches in her brain. “If a tomato isn’t from a local farmer, I don’t buy it, not because it’s unhealthy, but because it doesn’t taste good. My three children won’t be able to discern what a tomato tastes like if they’ve never tasted good ones,” she remarks. A graduate in business science and qualified as a social educator, she started working in banking and has also been the coordinator of governmental socio-labour projects. She pours her long and diverse professional experience into Espigoladors with intensity and by putting in many hours in. A project of its own that now has thousands more adherents.

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