Food waste in the supply chain and the marketing of solutions

Hi all

In discussions about food waste, we hear a lot about waste in the supply chain that arises because fresh produce doesn’t meet certain cosmetic standards, or because there are surpluses in production and supermarkets don’t want it all, or they change their minds because there’s a forecasted drop in demand, and so forth. As regards the UK, a few initiatives have sprung up explicitly to address this problem - there is for example at least one quite well-known box delivery scheme that provides customers with a mixed selection of produce that is outsized or misshapen or in surplus, as well as vegetable varieties that are being trialled and don’t yet have a commercial outlet and so forth. One or two supermarkets have also been marketing ‘ugly vegetables’ as part of their stated commitments to tackling food waste. However, living in inner London as I do, I see whole armies of ‘bowl men’ (I don’t know their official name - this is what I call them!) selling plastic bowls of fruit and veg at very low cost (e.g. 5 peppers or 4 avocados for a pound, huge bunches of spinach etc.). Where does their produce come from? Surely this mini-industry has also sprung up in response to gluts and supermarket rejections? Are they not also helping reduce food waste but without the moral back-patting that goes with all these other schemes? I am curious because it seems to me that there are class/race issues involved here - buying your veg from an ‘ethical’ box scheme tends to be something that more affluent, educated, overtly eco conscious people do whereas buying from your local bowl man is ‘just’ buying your fruit and veg because it’s cheap. It
doesn’t carry the same ethical kudos but it may be that the impacts are exactly the same. I get a box delivery and I also buy regularly from my local bowl man - what I buy from bowl man is a lot cheaper…

On a related note, it may be that this bowl-man system of provisioning is just replacing the old fruit and veg markets that have now been lost due to supermarket competition although the nature of what’s offered is different (more international produce as compared with the older markets). Farmers’ markets are not really a replacement for these ‘traditional’ markets because, again, they attract higher income, educated, predominantly white customers and their produce is often quite expensive. I haven’t looked into the supply chains of this bowl man sector and so I speak from a position of ignorance (and of course this may be just a London phenomenon but I suspect you get it in some other UK cities), but I’m a. wondering if anyone has explored their waste-environmental implications and b. if anyone has any comments on the way in which the framing of waste reduction approaches links to issues of class, education, race and so forth?

I can’t comment on ‘bowl men’ supply chains, and indeed I haven’t seen the system where I live in the north of England.

However, your comment that this seems to be a race and class issue reminds me of @ankebrons’ blog post Feeding the melting pot: Inclusive sustainable diets in the multi-ethnic city , which notes that Syrian migrants in the Netherlands often eat unprocessed, seasonal vegetables, but their motivation for doing so is not generally rooted in sustainability concerns.

I can’t comment on the environmental implications (although I would also be really interested to know more about this if anyone else knows), but in my area of London I can confirm that the bowl men have definitely come from the declining local food market. We used to have a huge street market which is now a fraction of its previous size, but the bowl man part of the market seems to have survived the best.

Their trade increased massively during the lockdowns, as there were huge queues to get into the supermarkets, and I also wonder whether this has resulted in increased business carrying on now that the lockdowns have ended.


I haven’t seen any “bowl men”, but we have many thriving Saturday (or other day) markets in Yorkshire where lots of the locals buy fruit and veg. I’m not sure where the sellers get their supplies. I do know that if you go at the end of the day, you can get great prices - 3 punnets of local strawberries for a pound! Also, we have some vans that go to local villages and sell fish or meat and these are also popular. Our closest farmers’ market is definitely not just middle-class people - also loads of local shoppers. The place is packed out on weekends!

That is not to say that there isn’t a major issue with access to fresh fruit and veg in the urban or suburban areas. There are some initiatives, like the excellent Rooted in Hull which not only has a large urban farm, but has 50 local college students each year working there on all sorts of things. They have an electric bike making local deliveries and a Pay It Forward scheme so people can help families who are struggling. We need a lot of of these as well as a lot more direct connecting of farmers and urban communities to keep food local and affordable.

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And ps - just to clarify, this is what I mean by ‘bowl men’!

Image credits: Marchmont street by ‘It’s no Game’,

Maybe only London and DRC (!) but at temperatures of well over 35C and no refrigeration shelf life is not long and soon sold as substandard veg even if not starting as such. Have we alternative protein too in London.

Hi all

In seeking a reply to my own question, I contacted the vegetable box delivery scheme that I subscribe to, to ask for their thoughts, and I received this helpful reply (which they gave me permission to post). I hope it’s of interest:

Thank you very much for your interest in this topic and for your support of Oddbox. We really appreciate it. After having had a look into this for you I have come with some information that could be useful for you.

Unfortunately this information is only partly valid as I can’t make any assumptions on how these bowl suppliers operate, I can only comment on how Oddbox works.

The primary difference that I would point out is that we pay all of our farmers and growers fairly. Farmers may sell their produce at reduced wholesale prices because they need to find a buyer or they will have lost income growing that crop (this could be where the bowl model fits in). Since this produce is perfectly edible we believe farmers and growers should not be paid any less for this.

Another difference I can think of is where they source their produce from. We have a list of regular growers. The bowl model may operate on sourcing from a middle man.

Our partner growers come to us when they need our support to distribute delicious produce which supermarkets won’t take. This enables us to be flexible with the variety of fruit and veg we offer to our customers, while fighting waste.

The bowl model could also possibly operate by sourcing produce that is closer to expiry however we only source produce that is equally as fresh. Rescuing for us never refers to freshness. However as I said these are only speculations based on what I know from working at Oddbox.

It’s really good to hear about other businesses also looking to eliminate food waste as our ultimate goal is a world where all food grown is eaten. Therefore in a perfect world Oddbox would never have been created in the first place, or if we arrive there then Oddbox will be redundant.

I hope that answers some of your questions and if you have any other please feel free to get back to me.

The nuances are interesting. Supermarkets select produce to appeal to their buyers and, if the system is working properly, should be a neutral player between grower and consumer. If anything they would prefer to sell all production warts and all because the cost of supply falls and more sales opportunities are created.

Increasingly produce that is unsaleable is left in the field to save cost (for example cauliflowers). Stored produce, such as potatoes, is graded on farm, or at a packer, often to discard rots that would contaminate a batch and increase waste. Misshaped vegetables will end up in prepared meals and soups.

An increasing disconnect is the role of the intermediary between farm and retailer. These businesses are not usually highly profitable and focus has often been on cost reduction and thus simplicity. There are now a number of examples where this has meant that products seen as offering advantage by the farmer and retailer are not adopted. Toll processing is perhaps the solution.

Long supply chains are not always intrinsically bad even if they reduce the growers price. Some supply chains in Africa allow the production of income for a number of households. A system can remove the intermediaries and raise income for the grower, or lower the price for the consumer, but this risks excluding participants from the economy.

In terms of waste in the supply chain, I found this from the IPCC very enlightening about where the majority of waste is. It is in the livestock systems.