Say no to food waste: one woman’s life mission

By Jessamy Baldwin

“Innovation has to start with really understanding the problem. An idea will never be successful unless it really addresses a need and sees the bigger picture.” These are the words of Nikki Dravers, 27, who is doing everything she can to tackle food waste – a global problem she rightfully brands “down right stupid, disgusting and unjust”.

“Did you know that a third of the food we produce globally for human consumption is wasted?” Nikki asks me.

“In fact, 15 million tonnes of food is thrown away in the UK every year. It’s hard to picture it, but that’s enough to fill 19 Wembley stadiums to the brim,” she adds.

In 2015, Nikki set up her own company REfUSE to help tackle food waste in Durham. They use healthy, nutritious food from supermarkets, wholesalers, small shops, allotments, restaurants and other charities that would otherwise be destined for the bin. Nikki – along with her small team of staff and volunteers – then cook and serve meals at pop-up events, community cafés, market stalls and schools.

Since its launch two years ago, REfUSE have saved almost 20 tonnes of food and drink from going to landfill and fed around 8,000 meals. They have also just launched their very own community cafe in a county Durham town

Nikki’s journey of battling food waste began five years ago, and has been marked by momentous challenges, a few bumps along the way and a great deal of success. Newly graduated from Durham University with a degree in Natural Sciences, Nikki decided to spend a further year in the north eastern city, working as many jobs as she could and volunteering with every spare second she had.

“I worked at the Marriott Hotel on the breakfast shift, and filled my afternoons with volunteering, which included youth work, volunteering in my local church and working at a Salvation Army Café. At the end of every breakfast shift, I was made to throw away extortionate amounts of delicious mushrooms, bacon, eggs, bread, cheese, sausages, gallons of freshly squeezed grapefruit and orange juice. And then I’d wander a couple of hundred metres up the road to the Salvation Army Cafe and serve up simple vegetable soup and cheese toasties, which to many would be the only proper meal of the day. It was the same year food banks in England saw demand escalate shockingly fast. I just couldn’t live with witnessing this extravagant waste in such close proximity to real food poverty.”

Angered and saddened by what she was seeing, Nikki got involved with FoodCycle Durham, a hub of a national charity that aims to fight food poverty and social isolation by serving meals with food collected from local shops at the end of each day.

“For a couple of years, I spent my spare time raising money for this charity, collecting food from a small local supermarket and a couple of green grocers. I was learning more and more about food waste, and the environmental impact it has. If food waste were a country, for example, it would be the third largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, after China and USA.”

The social impact Nikki and her team were making at the Salvation Army Café was great, for 20-30 people, but she couldn’t help but wonder how food waste was being dealt with by larger supermarkets, wholesalers and those further up the supply chain.

“I didn’t want to be thanking supermarkets for what a great job they were doing wasting food, I wanted to be making a song and dance about it, and stop it happening in the first place.”

A spark had been ignited, and there was no stopping her. Nikki applied and got onto a prestigious programme with the School for Social Entrepreneurs, through a “dragons den-style application”.

“They gave me a bit of funding, mentoring and some training that helped me shape what I wanted to do and learn how to do it.” That was when REfUSE came to life.

“When I first started REfUSE two years ago, it was all in my spare time alongside four other jobs that all added up to something of a salary. It was a very different career path to most of my graduating friends that’s for sure.

“Initially we did monthly pop-up restaurant events, collecting food in my little car and filling our front room at home. These were incredible events where people from every background were welcome and included. People were encouraged to pay for their meals with time, money or skills. Now we have grown so that I work full-time and have a team of three other paid staff, about 150 volunteers, an office, warehouse, cafe and a van.”

REfUSE now also runs a schools project, educating primary school children about where their food comes from, the value of it in terms of the resources that have gone in to getting it to their plates, and allowing them to run a ‘pay as you feel’ market stall every week.

“We’ve gone from collecting veg every other week from our local supermarket and bread from the baker, to driving round in a van collecting over a tonne of food every week. We have a huge social media following and have even catered four weddings and amazing banquets for 150+ people.”

Nikki says their vision is to “reveal value in things, places and people that otherwise might be overlooked”.

The latest venture is fully functioning REfUSE café.

“We have just secured a three-year lease on a huge property on the high street in Chester-le-Street. It has a big shop front, which we are converting into a café, and a huge warehouse behind, which we will use as our base for sorting, storing and redistributing food. The café will be open five days a week, run almost entirely by volunteers, and serving only food and drink that would otherwise have been wasted, on a “pay as you feel” basis.

Reflecting on her achievements so far, Nikki simply tells me that food is the “social glue” that holds us all together.

“People from every background are equal over a shared meal, and the sense of community cohesion is mutually beneficial whatever background we come from. Since I started all this, I’ve learnt that the world’s problems are not solved overnight, and that things take time, faith and commitment.”

Nikki says it’s a joy to be doing something she feels passionate about, but that being an entrepreneur and starting REfUSE has had to involve sacrificing some of life’s comforts that her peers have enjoyed by taking more conventional career paths.

“In the first three years after university, I shared a bunk bed with my best friend and my office was our busy kitchen table. I was never interested in a six-figure salary, but the security and glamour of a graduate scheme in London did seem tempting at times when things were less secure and unknown.

“My parents, Penny and Mark Dravers run Guernsey Sea Farms, a company which produces tiny oyster seed and supplies oyster farms worldwide. So, I grew up in an entrepreneurial and ambitious family. Running my own venture has been a lot of hard work and I’ve often felt out of my depth. But I’ve learnt to find and listen to people who help, not listen to those who tell you to “leave it to the big guns”, and not be swayed from my vision by all the suggestions and alternatives that come my way.”

For anyone out there wanting to start their own venture, Nikki says to “use all your available resources, friends and connections. People want to help.”

“Also, remember in life to do what suits you most and what you are best at. You may come up with a brilliant business model but if it involves you doing something you’ve never done before and don’t enjoy doing, it won’t sustain. My original business plan was to make soups, smoothies, jams and chutneys out of surplus food. I decided to do that because we had a really powerful blender (that we’d bought from at home, that was lying around listlessly. The plan may have worked well, but would have meant me being stuck in a production room making chutneys every day. I have not grown up making chutneys, and I know I am a people person, who’s good at running big events and getting lots of people involved, so I would have tired of this idea really quickly.”

Despite the staggering statistics surrounding global food waste, Nikki says things are starting to change for the better, but that there is still a long way to go.

“Things are changing, and I’ve seen that happen over the five years I’ve been campaigning. A few years ago, most big UK supermarkets wouldn’t even talk to food redistribution charities. Today they all do, and almost all have a policy in place. The media, and particularly social media, has contributed to a heightened awareness of both food waste and food poverty both nationally and globally.

“I think over the past few years since organisations such as ours, and celebrities like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have increasingly brought this to the public’s attention, there has been a definite shift in awareness and pressure from consumers wanting to know that supermarkets are doing something about food waste. But there is a long way to go. I believe only around 5% of total supermarket food waste is currently being redistributed.

“We need more people like us feeding bellies not bins, but most of all we need supermarkets to address the strategies, policies and systems that cause waste in the first place.”

Facts on food waste…

  • If we were to stop food waste altogether, the Greenhouse Gas impact would be the equivalent of taking 1 in 4 cars off the road.
  • Around 28% of the world’s agricultural area is taken to grow food that is wasted, and half of the irrigation water used around the world is lost to wasted food.
  • The planet’s one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment with less than a quarter of the food wasted in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe.
  • The water used to irrigate food that ends up being thrown away could meet the domestic water needs of nine billion people.

This article was printed in The Guernsey Press on Friday 25 May 2018.

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