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An Interview With: Fair Food

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

Tell us about yourself...

My grandmother Mila (Millie), was the first woman in our family to come to Aotearoa. She arrived here in 1956 as a war widow & a mother to three young children. She was the first woman travelling on her own, with children, approved to immigrate to New Zealand. What she found was: an ambitious, audacious, awesome older sister - bootlegging homemade port. Fellow country-men - fishing, building houses as well as planting vineyards & orchards. A familiar tight-knit Yugolsav community - with a deep-rooted cultural appreciation of food, celebrating every moment, generosity, problem-solving, & looking after those who are most vulnerable.

My father immigrated to New Zealand, from the then Yugoslavia, in the mid 1960s. Hence, I am a first generation Kiwi. Raised in a generous Dalmatian social environment & amidst a hard-working entrepreneurial culture, who lived off the land & shared all surplus wine, olives, fish, fruit, vegetables & so on. There is no place a Croatian will go without an abundant food offering in hand, & there is always, always room for one more at our table.

I studied in Dunedin at the University of Otago, for nine years. It was there that I received a Bachelor degree in marketing management & economics - including environmental economics - before doing my Master’s in marketing.

From there I worked in the advertising industry, choosing that route because I liked the clash of creativity with business problems. It was also vibrant, fast-moving & while at times exhausting, it was energising to create change with fundamentally, a bloody good idea. It was a tough gig, but I preferred it over following a more traditional business trajectory that wouldn’t allow for creativity or disruption to the status quo - to stand out, cut through & make an impact.

I left University with considerable student debt, so that informed my career path considerably. Also, my mother was a solo mother from my teens. She gave me a book one Christmas after my parents divorced entitled “A man is not a financial plan”. So early on, when I was 17 or 18, I realised financial independence for women is hugely important & that to have everything ripped away from you is not cool. It struck a deep chord within me, and is one of the key reasons that I decided to get a higher education - no one can ever take that away from you. I was the first woman on both sides of my family to go to university. It was also why I followed a career path that would, in time, allow me to have both independence & choices.

“I’ve realised that giving back and wanting to help is part of my makeup...”

Along the way, I have stepped away from corporate life, & worked in several non-for-profits as frankly, I could afford to do so - a stint working for a UK bank technology start-up in the late 1990s in London helped somewhat too. I’ve worked at a number of charities including: the Auckland City Mission & KidsCan before joining Fair Food, what is now several years back. First as a volunteer & hands-on Board member, before becoming the Executive Director & Chief Cheerleader to propel Fair Food forward.

As friends, family & colleagues would attest - paying it forward, bringing people together, big ideas & generous, joyful inclusion as well as hospitality, are fundamentally part of my make-up. These are traits I carry with me wherever I go, along with that grit and determination instilled in me by others that have walked before. Including my beloved Baba (grandmother) Millie.

The beginning...

Established in 2011, Fair Food is Auckland’s original food rescue organisation. It was founded as a collaboration between four key partners - Lifewise, MPHS Community Initiative, Auckland Council & VisionWest. The idea of ‘food rescue’ emerged from the Waitakere Wellbeing Collaboration Project under the Food Security Call to Action & is an evolution of the original ‘Free Store Waitakere 2011’ project. This proved that food insecurity in West Auckland is very real. In 2012, Fair Food formally established as a charitable trust & focused in on food rescue.

Fair Food formalised several business relationships from the original free food store model & evolved. It wasn’t sustainable to continue receiving free food every week & then to simply run out. What they needed to do was to educate the community around food & cooking in order to create both long term sustainability & self-sufficiency. So, they had an idea! They would continue with their mission around food rescue, & then use the surplus produce in cooking classes to be held across various community hubs.

As you can see, there was a significant element of education in all of this. However, the organisation ended up getting so involved in the food rescue side of things, that they inadvertently found their niche.

Now we are going full circle again, & off the back of the environmental story, exploring ways to educate people around minimising food waste, being creative with leftovers & practicing ‘scraps cooking’. With that said, our number one priority is & always will be; to get the surplus food that we collect to the people that need it most, so that we can continue our mission of addressing hunger & tackling food waste.


How do you operate...

Fair Food works because of relationships at every single touch-point. From the functional & operational side of things our vans are on the road five days a week & looking to expand. We rescue from 7am - 12 pm and carry out ad-hoc, short notice food rescues when need be. We have memorandums of understanding with Countdown, Farro Fresh & a number of other growers, manufacturers, retailers, distributors & wholesale donors. When they have a surplus, they give us a call, we go & pick it up, & bring it into our hub here in Avondale.

Once the food has arrived, our band of volunteers lovingly and respectfully hand sort the food. These food rescue heroes come in every afternoon from 12 pm - 3pm; we think most members of the public probably don’t realise how much hand sorting is involved. You can’t make this a mechanical or automated system, not easily or inexpensively at least. Food then gets separated into various boxes - fresh food, which is fit to eat ‘as is’, food fit for cooking & lastly products that get turned into compost or animal feed.

We want to highlight that...

“ this isn’t “bad food” or “food that has gone off”, it is simply surplus food in the supply chain and we’re intercepting that before it hits the landfill.”

We focus largely on fresh fruit & vegetables; the nutritionally dense foods Kiwis need to stay healthy. Then there are items that complement what food banks traditionally put in their parcels - typically dry shelf-stable goods. All of the fresh products are hand sorted, logged & then set aside in our chillers overnight. Every morning on a set schedule, five days a week, charity groups come & collect the food to help nourish our communities. Sam, our Warehouse Manager ensures each recipient group gets a fair share of fresh fruit & vegetables, dairy, protein, as well as some shelf stable goods. We partner with over 40 trusted front-line community groups who directly distribute this through their food banks and/or deliver food parcels. These include family violence & mental health agencies, community groups that work with troubled youth, young mums, those sleeping rough or homeless, marae, schools, police & more. We are a charity for charities.


WestCity Waitakere Countdown fire...

A couple of months back, a fire broke out at one of our partnering supermarkets - namely Countdown Henderson at WestCity shopping centre. The supermarket shut for several weeks for refurbishment. It was a TikTok prank gone wrong & a potentially terrible event, but luckily our Fair Food team could mobilise quickly & efficiently to rescue the good food that was earmarked by the insurers for landfill. In part because we’ve practiced through Covid, & partly because we now have the infrastructure in place to respond. This is largely due to support we’ve received from the Ministry of Social Development, Countdown as well as other funders.

We wanted to make sure of two things during this difficult time. First, that the team at Countdown knew we were available to help & support them through this. Secondly, we were persistent in asking our partner simply “what is happening with this food?”. The insurance company, for reasons related to speed & simplicity, thought that landfill was their best solution. We said ‘no’ & put our hands up to help. It took a bit of convincing but thankfully they agreed, & within four days we had cleared all the chilled, perishable foods. We managed to rescue something like 30 to 40 pallets of chilled products. There was such a huge variety, everything from cheeses & other dairy items, ready-made meals, to pasta. Anything that you can imagine would be stocked along the supermarket chiller aisle.

We were donated a further 38 pallets of amazing shelf stable home branded food & household items including toiletries and sanitary items. What made this process possible was having the will, persistence and also a solid partner in Countdown. They trusted us to respond & to do so in a timely & safe way that benefited all stakeholders & of course, the community we support.

Food rescue is receiving more limelight but it is still not seen as ubiquitous or mainstream. Many individuals & organisations do not realise that it exists as a solution to tackling both environmental & social issues. It has grown, especially last year, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done across both businesses & for people at home. If anyone reading this is in the food business & you are facing a quandary or crisis & have surplus food, please call your local food rescue organisation. There are over 22 of us up & down NZ doing this unseen work to ‘feed people, not landfill”.


Challenges Fair Food experiences...

RESCUE PARTNERS & EVENTS | There was a hui on climate change recently, yet food rescue wasn’t considered as an action towards supporting that. It’s almost like people don’t realise the link that exists between hosting a sustainable event & making food rescue an integral part of the content & a service at the event itself. An example of this is a document, that I recently came by, written by an environmental group. They created a guide for hosting sustainable events & it’s a beautiful document. It talks about waste, composting on-site, having the right bins out etc. but nowhere do they suggest or talk about engaging a food rescue partner.

I also raised this issue at a recent board meeting, where we were discussing partnering with the Grey Lynn Festival. It’s a critical step towards sustainability & a circular economy. Food rescue should be a requirement & if organisations want to host an event in NZ they should have to reach out to a food rescue partner. People at events deal with food surplus quite beautifully in their own way. They trade goods between other stallholders, neighbours or take items back home for family & friends. However, the issue arises when people have more than what they know what to do with or want to pay it forward. This is where organisations like Fair Food are able to assist in re-distributing the surplus seamlessly & elegantly.

ACCESSIBILITY | Recently, we attended a webinar run by the Ministry of Social Development, & one of the speakers had a great point. He said; “there is good access to bad food & bad access to good food.” An example of this can be seen right here in West Auckland on Lincoln Rd. This location is dubbed as the fast-food lane-way of NZ, having the most fast food outlets in the whole country concentrated on one tiny strip. The crazy thing is that this is right here in Fair Food’s backyard. So, accessibility to good food is another consideration for Aotearoa, to help overcome poor health outcomes and social inequity.

PERCEPTION | We get multiple requests from people to come into our hub. Many think the majority of the food we handle goes straight to compost, when in fact, over 90% of what we rescue is gorgeous surplus food that is now being shared across whanau in need. This includes fruit & vegetables, yes - but there’s also marinated feta, double manuka smoked salmon & the like, that would have otherwise gone to the dump!

FUNDING | This will always be an issue for charities. We spend an extraordinary amount of time finding and writing grants. Having & getting long-term funding would allow us to focus on growth, innovation & sustainability rather than heads-down writing grant applications all day.


Surprising food waste statistics consumers might not know...

GLOBAL | On a global scale, we waste or lose from paddock to plate 30% of all food produced - this is of course also a massive loss of resources including: water, fossil fuels, people’s sweat, blood & tears. I don’t think people often respect & appreciate the work that goes into creating the food sitting on their table. This loss also contributes to 8% of all global carbon emissions worldwide. If food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest carbon emitter behind the US and China.

NEW ZEALAND | In NZ, one in five children face food insecurity - defined as not having secure and suitable, ready access to nutritious food. This is close to a million people in NZ not having something in the cupboard. For a nation that is one of the world’s leading food producers, you should think we would have enough. Yet, there is now a whole new band of struggling individuals, including middle-income earners on minimum wage, paying Auckland rent prices & struggling to make ends meet.

Food insecurity can be chronic as a result of long term poverty, or it can be acute & brought about by seasonal episodes, environmental issues or unforeseen events like medical bills or Covid. Be it chronic or acute, people might be out of work & struggling to feed themselves or their families. You can’t be stereotypical about this subject, as it impacts many individuals, not just our most vulnerable.

GEN Z | There’s been a 2021 Food Waste Survey done by Rabobank, & they looked at who throws away the most food. Gen Z is the worst! These individuals estimated that they throw away 16% of their food spend, whereas Baby Boomers throw 5% away. On the other hand, Gen Z have also been singled out as most likely to view climate change & sustainability as a major concern for NZ over the coming decade. Being the generation of subscription meal plans, deliveries & pre-packaged dishes, it is even more important that these individuals make the link between their consumption, ‘throwaway’ behaviour & what they are passionate about. If they knew that - ‘reducing food waste’ - is the simplest yet biggest collective idea to mitigate climate change, and then act on this, it could be one of the most impactful preventive measures they’d ever undertake.

Many will go on plant based diets & encourage their parents, friends etc. to do so as well, in order to combat climate change. Whilst this is great, something far more basic they could be doing is to simply eat all of their food. An awesome quote I cite often is: “we don’t need one or two people doing zero waste perfectly, we need millions doing it imperfectly” - Zero Waste Chef.

Even though food waste has dropped from 10.25% to 8.6%, the estimated value of food waste across all NZ households has grown to $2.4 billion per year - due to higher food prices, a greater number of households & increased spend on household food. This shows the issue is far from being improved.

FAIR FOOD | We focus on rescuing food before it reaches landfill, putting our efforts into organisations such as growers, manufacturers and retailers. Our numbers are pretty impressive!

“We rescue enough food to make up 4,000 food parcels a week, to feed approximately 15,000 - 20,000 people.”

This reduces carbon emissions by approximately 2,000 Kgs per month.


What do you hope to achieve with Fair Food going forward...

Our immediate focus is on creating a happy, happening hub - somewhere people can come together, participate in this mahi, do something meaningful, make a difference & see a direct impact. We also want to bring together individuals from all walks of life & cross that corporate-community divide. We want this space to be aimed at putting more good food in the community & a place people can come to gain new skills, confidence, health, well-being & social connection.

Tracey, our head of operations & relationships, has been meeting all of our recipients, welcoming them into our space or going off-site to theirs. This has been an awesome way to let our partners know that we are here to support them & to meet our obligations, ensuring that surplus food is going where it needs to.

I went to a community event last week hosted by one of our food recipients, Mercy Waitamata. It was such a privilege walking into the community space. They do afternoon teas and dinners every Thursday for people sleeping rough. Some guests walk in with their lives on their backs, and they are the most amazing, beautiful, & friendly individuals. It is these moments, where we get to see the tangible impact of what we do, that are the most rewarding.

In the long term, we want to find new and innovative ways that not only meet our community needs but also evolve to meet the market needs. This includes exploring ways to re-purpose & up-cycle some of the food that would normally go to compost, & find ways to develop this into products or meals that can go back into the community. We hope to use our connections, credibility & track record to further this area as a pipeline & potentially as a source of funding. If we can bring awareness to the sector at the same time that would be awesome.

We also want to get more people involved, volunteers & businesses alike, to donate food but also to support us and come along for the journey. It can be a tough & emotionally exhausting line of work but by collaborating with like-minded people, we can share those struggles & spread them out until they don’t seem unmanageable. It’s also about realising that we don’t have to have all the answers on our own. We can align ourselves with the likes of Neighbourhood & others. We feel part of an emerging environmental, social & highly-collaborative ecosystem, of startups/grassroots organisations who are all trying to do good in our communities & make an impact with a strong sense of purpose, accountability & fun.


How can households & individuals reduce their food waste...

Consumers want choice & have gotten used to living in a 24/7 culture. We have these ingrained expectations that food should always be readily available, our products should be of a certain perfect quality & that supermarkets should be fully stocked. People walk into a grocery store at 9:00 pm and they want to see bread on the shelves. Businesses can sometimes struggle to forecast demand and minimise surplus food because consumers want what we want when we want it & weather events, lock-downs etc. can change things dramatically.

One thing Covid has done is create a shock to the supply chain. People have started to realise & respect that there will be limits. We have witnessed this reawakening of communities coming together to move food around as a way to compliment or circumnavigate traditional food systems. There have also been growing conversations and initiatives, across mainstream channels, around community gardens, buying what’s in season, purchasing locally, cooking for yourself as well as regenerative & circular practices. Ultimately, the best action everyone can take whether they are at home or in their workplace to help curb carbon emissions is to…

“waste less food.”
  • eat what’s on your plate

  • use what’s in your fridge

  • plan meals accordingly

  • re-purpose/reuse

  • pay it forward or pass it on

  • make a weekly meal planner

  • write a shopping list or download an app

  • freeze leftovers

  • chuck extra bread, vegetables or fruit in the freezer

  • use your nose, it knows best! Best before dates are guides and don’t tell you if something has actually gone off or is safe to consume

This article was written by Jadzia Michna-Konigstorfer, Vice President & Head of Communications of Neighbourhood.

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