The Orchadist magazine cover next to a photo of a surplus produce donation from Golden Bay Fruits

This article is from The Orchardist magazine - August 2023 page 38

The New Zealand Food Network (NZFN) wants to establish a national platform that can estimate surplus produce each year and redistribute it to those struggling to put food on the table. ANNE HARDIE speaks to some of the grower donors, Golden Bay Fruit and T&G Fresh.

NZFN chief executive Gavin Findlay says about 30 percent of fruit and vegetables never get to market, mainly because most consumers will not buy less than perfect. He says it is a waste for growers, retailers and manufacturers, a huge environmental problem in landfill, plus socially wrong when many Kiwis need help with food.

The network with the support of its partners has redistributed about 3.8 million kilograms of fresh produce from growers, wholesalers, retailers and manufacturers since its inception three years ago. It now supports almost half a million people (9.2 percent of the population) through more than 60 food hubs around the country, plus another 110 entities such as city missions, Salvation Army and iwi, that provide food to people in need.

Now it is working at developing a platform using technology from overseas that enables growers through to retailers to register their estimated surplus produce so the network can plan how it can redistribute or upcycle it into something like sauces or soups for Kiwis who need it.

"If we can get the whole country working on the same platform and talking the same language, using the same type of data, then we have a much clearer picture of the scale of the surplus".

"Across products, regions and over time we can build up a picture of understanding. So, in a wet year this is going to happen, in a dry year this is what is going to happen and in a fantastic growing year this is what is going to happen. That would be the long-term vision to really understand what the surplus is."

Growers can only give a guestimate because he says there are always the complete unknowns such as Cyclone Gabrielle and Covid-19. During the latter, the network received 165 tonnes of surplus tomatoes over a seven- week period because it was a year of "fantastic" yields and demand dropped due to the pandemic.

His goal now is to get in front of as many growers, manufacturers and processors as he can to show them how NZFN can be a solution to their inevitable surplus.

"It needs to be part of the DNA of a business because you know you are going to have surplus. Let's not hide it. It's not a sin when a consumer has a fickle reaction to a colour of a product and goes, nah I don't want it. Let's have a solution for it."

He recognises that harvesting produce that is not saleable can be a cost to growers which is why he wants to use technology to instigate a national gleaning programme (collecting leftover crops). Israel already has technology that growers use to estimate the yield, sales and surplus of a crop. An army of volunteers is then coordinated to harvest the surplus at no cost to the grower. In New Zealand, Gavin says there is potential to establish a small enterprise to go and glean produce from the paddock or orchard. Because packaging such as bins and crates are a cost, the network intends to stock packaging that can be dropped off to growers as surplus produce is picked up.

Smaller growers can be teamed up with local rescue organisations or food hubs. Having a network from producers through to hubs and transport means there is the ability to coordinate different groups, he says.

The NZFN's existing network enabled it to provide food to emergency shelters during Cyclone Gabrielle and the Auckland Anniversary floods before even the National Emergency Management Agency and Civil Defence because he says those organisations had to wait until a National State of Emergency was declared.

Directing food to where it is desperately needed is only one of the reasons for redistributing surplus. He says another crucial reason for doing something with surplus food is its environmental impact when it ends up in landfill if it is not sold at retail. If all the food waste dumped into landfill around the world was described as a country, he says it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet behind China and the United States.

"It's not a sin when a consumer has a fickle reaction to a colour of a product"

He says NZFN can help growers maximise the value from a product they grow by purchasing surplus produce.

Purchasing surplus is one of the network's three food sources. One source is surplus that is gleaned or delivered to redistribute, a second is the intentional giving (donations) of often grade-one produce, while the third source is through the network's ability to purchase surplus produce through government funding. That can provide a small amount of revenue to growers to make it worthwhile harvesting.

The government is NZFN's major funder, ever since Covid-19 came along and the network sought its involvement to deal with the social effects from the pandemic. It also has quite a list of major donors from food manufacturers to retailers on board. One of Gavin's tasks is to work out how the network would continue to operate and grow if the government's funding was not there any longer, though he is hoping that will not eventuate.

"The reality is a country should have an interest in feeding its people. We are the last westernised country in the world to actually put money into helping feed the people."

The NZFN has been in full operation for three years and has a base target distribution of about 28 tonnes of surplus per day every working week of the year. Since its inception it has redistributed 20,000 tonnes of food.

Gavin says the network is still looking at how it can do things better, how it can get more product and where it can add value.

Golden Bay Fruit in Tasman is one of the grower donors, supplying fresh fruit for several months of the year to NZFN. The company is now into its second year supplying the network and this year it is donating between 3000 and 7000kg of apples and kiwifruit over a five-month period. Director Evan Heywood says that when the company heard about NZFN, it wanted to be involved.

"We're helping out those people who can't afford to buy fruit at the supermarket and it's a healthy option." The donations are grade one-and-a-half fruit which is usually sold on the local market and is available from February through to August or September when it runs out of the season's fruit. Every week on a given day, the network organises a truck to pick up a set amount of bins from the Motueka packhouse site to take to its central South Island hub in Christchurch. From there, it joins produce to be redistributed across dozens of food hubs around the island. "Every week we send eight to 12 bins of fruit and they send us bins that we fill up with fruit again."

He says the network does an extraordinary job distributing donated food to where it is most needed.

T&G Fresh became a foundation partner with NZFN as it recognised the valuable role it would play as a national bulk food network to New Zealanders. General manager sales and marketing Anthony Joseph says they knew that at certain times of year, because of changes to harvest or demand, there was a surplus of produce from within the business as well as from its network of independent growers.

Since then, T&G channels all of its surplus fresh produce to NZFN and together with its network of growers has donated more than two million kilograms. When donated volumes are low or in short supply, T&G purchases additional fruit and vegetables at wholesale prices to donate to NZFN, including the lead-up to Christmas and following Cyclone Gabrielle.

Anthony says donations are made up of surplus stock such as harvest volumes exceeding orders or when produce has a broader specification which does not suit customer requirements, or orders cannot be delivered because of weather or transport issues. He encourages all growers with surplus produce to get in touch with T&G or NZFN to find out how the produce can be captured and donated to Kiwis in need.

To read the full August 2023 issue of The Orchardist magazine, head to:

If you would like to donate bulk food, please get in touch here.

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