Molly Folkard at the Botanic Gardens, near ANU.

Waste not, want not: Solving Australia's food waste problem

Publication date
Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Molly Folkard has a passion for food. But not cooking it, nor eating it, nor even Instagramming it.

She wants to rescue it.

As part of an internship through the Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU, Molly has just made an important contribution to Australia’s food waste strategy – while still an undergraduate.

“Basically, I had to write an implementation plan for food waste in Australia, and how we’re going to cut it in half by 2030. Which is kinda big,” says Molly.

As part of a Bachelor of Environment and Sustainability (Advanced) (Honours), Molly pursued an internship in the food sector, or more specifically, food waste.

“I mean, ‘waste’ doesn’t have the best association, does it?” she jokes. “But now I’m really enjoying it.”

“I was looking into interventions to current practices and new practices that might be able to increase the impact of the sector in reducing food waste.

“Other than prevention, food rescue is one of the most preferred methods for reducing food waste. I chose the top three rescue organisations in Australia to focus on, as they account for 98 percent of the efforts in the whole sector.”

Molly with staff members of Foodbank.

Molly with the team at Foodbank.

Molly’s host organisation was FIAL (Food Innovation Australia Limited), who were commissioned by the Federal Government to write and implement a food waste strategy.

Initially thinking that she would just be helping out, Molly ended up writing the action plan for the food rescue sector.

To get hands-on experience, she travelled locally and interstate to get a grasp of the existing organisations that currently operate in Australia.

“I visited the OzHarvest office in Canberra and went out in one of their vans for the day, stopping at supermarkets to collect food and dropping it off where it would then be donated.

“It was a really eye-opening way to understand what the challenges actually were. Not many of the supermarkets knew how to donate food properly. They’d do things like leave trolleys full of meat in the sun. Pretty much every place we went to, we couldn't accept a third to a half of the food that they were donating.”

Molly explains that the problems she encountered were not always straightforward, and were often shocking.

“When visiting Foodbank in Sydney, the biggest organisation in terms of volume, I went to their warehouse. I couldn’t believe the quantity of food they had; things like fridges fivestoreys  high full of carrots that they got from a farmer who couldn't sell them.”

A Foodbank warehouse full of stacked food and crates.

A Foodbank warehouse in Sydney.

But having seen the innovative ways that these organisations find solutions to food waste, both by getting food to people who need it and through education, Molly is hopeful that Australia’s food waste rates can drop.

“There's one orange farm near Sydney that can't get the price that will make it worth picking the oranges off the tree, which seems crazy. Ozharvest now goes and picks them and puts them in vending machines around Sydney that do fresh juice. It’s a really cool way to make sure the food is getting used but is also a means of educating the community.”

In the end, the skills and expertise which Molly acquired during her internship led her to work with FIAL to implement the strategy she created.

“I just thought this was going to be like another course at uni. I didn’t realise it would lead to a job!”

Inspired to dive deeper into the intricacies of food production, Molly is now completing an Honours project in sustainable food systems at the Fenner School of Environment and Society.

Of course, a lot of things have changed since the start of the academic year.

Fights over the last packet of pasta, hoarding of tinned food, international imports stopped in their tracks: Molly did not anticipate these events when starting out.

“I’ve actually had to completely redo my research topic as COVID-19 has been such a shock to the food system,” she says. “I’m now looking at how the pandemic might present an opportunity for broader food systems change.”

Despite the uncertainty of the current global crisis, food security is now more important than ever. With the need for strategic reform now urgent, for Molly, it’s a research opportunity too good to waste.

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