What if there was a Food Skills Advisor in the Supermarket?

Originally published about 5 years ago by the Fabian Society in 'Revaluing Food' - available here.

Over the course of the past six or seven years, Brook Lyndhurst has been researching the whys and wherefores of British food behaviours.  For organisations such as WRAP, Oxfam, the Greater London Authority, WWF and Defra we’ve looked at people buying food, storing food, cooking food, eating food – and throwing food away.

A common theme through this work has been the issue of skills.  At each stage, it seems that few of us are fully confident with food.  Many of us are not sure where our food comes from, or what the labels on the packet mean: many of us don’t store our food properly, and get confused between ‘best before’ and ‘use by’; many of us overcook our vegetables, undercook our meat and simply throw away our leftovers.

This ‘de-skilling’ has been underway for a long time, and has many inter-locking causes.  Lifestyles have changed over recent decades, and busy people want both their cooking and their shopping done as fast as possible, so ready meals and ‘fast food’ that require no skills have become more popular.  The teaching of food skills in schools has declined: and, at home, we’re now into a second, possibly even a third generation of young people who have not learned to cook by watching their parents.

This lack of skills has a direct impact on the amount of food we waste – and, given the scale of food wastage in this country, an urgent solution is required.

I propose that each large supermarket in the UK should have a Food Skills Advisor.  Most large supermarkets already have butchers and bakers in store: this individual would have a similar status.  They would offer advice and guidance to shoppers on recipe ideas, weekly meal planning and portion sizes.  They would explain how to cook unfamiliar vegetables, how to store the additional items purchased when shoppers are lured by ‘three for two’ offers and how to make creative use of items in the discounted section that appear in the late afternoon.

To ensure a broad and fair provision, these FSAs would need their own identity, distinct from the individual store or retailer.  I therefore propose that they should be provided by retailers in partnership with one another; and that they should be funded by a levy on turnover.  The levy would operate a little like the Tobin Tax.  Each store above 25,000 square feet would pay a charge that was related to its annual turnover.  The monies collected would be hypothecated and used to fund the FSAs.

According to the IGD, the major retailers have, between them, close to 5,500 stores of this size.  Assuming that the FSAs work part-time, and are on salaries commensurate with in-store butchers and the like, the total annual cost of the programme could be in the region of ~£130mn.  On the basis of IGD data, this would be the equivalent of just 0.1% of large-store turnover.  (It is also helpful to recall that the four large supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury and Morrisons – between them made profits of more than £5bn in 2011.)

As well as being affordable, the proposed FSA programme addresses two key factors that underpin our food waste behaviours.

The first is that, whilst not everyone in Britain wastes food, most of us do – and we’re embarrassed to admit it.  Deep down we know that it’s a shameful thing to throw away good food, but we look the other way.  The second factor is that it’s almost as embarrassing to admit that we don’t know what to do, particularly with something as ‘obvious’ as food: so it can be hard to ask for help.

The FSAs, available in every large food superstore in the land, would overcome both these barriers.  On the one hand, they would be a neutral, friendly and trustworthy source of information, available to everyone, thereby making it easy for people to ask for advice; and, on the other, they would be advising on positive issues – how to shop smart, how to cook smart – rather than castigating us on negative issues.  We all prefer to be helped rather than told off.

The figures on food waste in this country are, indeed, shaming; but the FSA programme outlined could provide an effective and affordable solution.


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