Turning Wasted Opportunities into Food Futures

Exploring approaches to food waste at The MERL for Food Waste Action Week

In this post for Food Waste Action Week 2023, MERL Curators Ollie Douglas and Isabel Hughes reveal some thoughts and approaches connected to food waste, which they shared recently with our friends in the International Association of Agricultural Museums. As ever-present worries about food waste suggest, we lack a winning recipe to solve this challenge in its entirety, but here at The MERL we’re stirring the pot with a mixture of fresh ideas and good intentions!

Food stories at The MERL

In recent years, The MERL has engaged in numerous activities that have had food at their heart. Few have focused solely on food waste but it is always a by-product of any such conversation, whether or not the main thrust of this content has been seasonality, poverty, security, global (in)justice, or nutrition. So, before we take a peek at current and future plans in relation to food waste, it is worth turning to some of these previous contexts in greater detail. The very fact that the issue of waste has never yet been at the forefront of our efforts speaks volumes about the degree to which this sometimes seems like a bitesize issue within the wider menu of food challenges. However, as we’ll discover, there may be hitherto underused resources at our disposal that we could make more focused use of in the future, as well as new initiatives offering fresh opportunities to cook up better approaches with the same heritage ingredients.

A Taste of Waste on Display

Our main gallery displays were redeveloped and launched back in 2016. One whole gallery here was devoted to the farming year. In this space, a digital interactive encourages users to make good decisions as consumers and to better understand what is in season and when. This is a perfect location within which to embed content on becoming less wasteful, and to compliment a wider focus that is now emerging on sustainability, seasonality, and local-sourcing.

photo of the screen displaying the 'seasonal chef' interactive in the Year on the Farm gallery at The MERL
The 'seasonal chef' game in the Year on the Farm gallery misses the opportunity to refer to food waste explicitly

Indeed, throughout the galleries, visitors encounter loads of content linked to food security, which is continually suggestive of an ever-present concern around waste. Opportunities for further emphasis present themselves in these spaces: a Second World War ‘Grow your Own’ food poster created and signed by celebrated designer Abram Games; a reference to the 2016 vote for Brexit, albeit without any prophetic sense of the food uncertainties or changes that it was set to bring; an interactive game that challenges players to feed the world’s ever-expansive population from back in 1850 right through to 2050. I think its fair to say that all of these narratives benefit from greater consideration of food waste and each and every one of them would be richer if they incorporated yet more explicit discussion of this important issue.

Grow your own display in the Town and Country gallery at The MERL
The Grow your Own display in the Town and Country gallery

‘Waste not, want not’

In our online content we share the story of pioneering human nutritionist Hugh Sinclair who was involved in wartime nutritional surveys that helped shape policy related to the national diet. We also have a legacy version of a student exhibition – Thinking Rationally? – which took its inspiration from wartime rationing. In relation to austerity – a concept that has echoes in more recent times and in the current state of financial precarity faced by many households today – it seems easy for us to re-emphasise similar ‘waste not want not’ approaches and messages. A greater focus on food waste and the challenges it presents is a logical follow on here. However, perhaps we should also dig more deeply into the experiences of those living below the poverty line, both past and present, shying away from simply replicating a nostalgic ‘make do and mend’ interpretations of these difficult phases in our national story.

Thinking rationally exhibition food waste
Panel on Food Waste from the 'Thinking Rationally' exhibition food waste

Various projects have also sought to explore global food systems, histories, and prehistories. It feels useful to acknowledge that wastefulness is neither new nor is it only a global northern phenomenon. Reaching a better understanding of where English food and farming fits in this broader context will be vital to helping our audiences understand and help combat waste today.

Old stories told afresh

In terms of collections we have not yet used, we might consider practical solutions to waste through historical examples of repurposing food waste in animal feed. We could tell the story of campaigns around global hunger and examine food waste discussion in these contexts, alongside the kind of content we already offer on food. And we could begin to examine systemic challenges in farming policy that lead to waste, not only at the consumer end but in production. One example might be the milk lakes and butter mountains of the 1980s.

Sustainability in our Café and Shop

As well as our collections and the stories that they tell, the Museum also engages with themes like food loss and waste through its activities and programming, including our own eatery. The products we sell through The MERL Café are not cooked on the premises so this means packaging can be a significant issue and sometimes a big problem. For example, one recent activity in the Museum garden was a family event that resulted in 108 individual pieces of abandoned packaging being collected and properly disposed of. We’ve learned quite a bit about waste management from this exercise and it helped contribute to our understanding of the kinds of food and packaging being regularly disposed of within our own four walls. As part of the University of Reading we have access to full recycling services, including all paper packaging and cups, but the plastic windows in our sandwich packs and the many crisp packets eagerly emptied by our hungry visitors remain a problem.

Obviously our food is not grown with the packaging in place. We grow food in our gardens as a community endeavour and this produce is given away to our local volunteers or visitors. We are keen for this produce not to go to waste, just as we are keen to find new ways to support community gardening initiatives and the wider aim to grow local. By growing food onsite, we aim to help show children where food really comes from and to give them a taste of the contexts of production that so many of our archives and artefacts originally come from. We recently piloted the sale of plants and seedlings from our garden in The MERL shop, helping to spread the word about how even the smallest amount of self-sufficiency can help.

Volunteers with beets grown in the MERL garden

It can be difficult to gauge how much food we might need on any one day in the café but monitoring visitor numbers helps us to understand demand at different stages of the week, helping us to keep waste to an absolute minimum. In addition to this, the University organizes a service whereby food waste is sent to a local power station where it is used as biofuel to help generate power. Our actions – both in the café and in our public programmes, – form part of a wider commitment by the University of Reading to understand and address sustainability and climate change, and the Museum’s Sustainability Services Strategy includes a key theme of resource use and waste.

A climate of change in Reading

As well as food waste, we are also mindful of the wider environmental challenges we now face. Many people now recognize the Climate Stripes artwork created by Professor Ed Hawkins, Climate Scientist at the University of Reading, which shows how global average temperatures have risen over nearly two centuries. Indeed, this artwork now forms part of the University’s Art Collection. As well as playing this prominent role in relation to climate awareness, the University has also recently joined the national pilot scheme of the Government’s Department for Education Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy. This will involve:

  • acting as champions of nature and biodiversity for local education settings and wider communities
  • providing opportunities to share expertise and natural environments
  • supporting other education settings in developing and delivering a better environment for future generations

These strands of activity are to be developed through the establishment of National Education Nature Parks, which are expected to embrace all types and sizes of space. So, keep an eye out here and theses spaces may well even include green spaces here in Reading. If we get the chance to be more involved as these plans develop, we’ll do our best to ensure that food and food waste can become part of this same important set of conversations.

The Climate Stripes.

And, of course, in partnership with our local partners and friends at Reading Museum, with the generous support of Arts Council England funding, we are also engaging directly with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This year’s Our Green Stories campaign is helping us to highlight issues of sustainability through in-person activities as well as new layers of both gallery and online content. The current gallery trail, for instance, addresses a vast array of contemporary challenges and environmental goals, linking these to objects and other items held in the Museum’s collections. Food and the complexities of our food systems run right through this material, with the topic of food waste of direct relevance to discussions of UK produce in a changing climate, self-sufficiency and limitations on access to space to grow food, and the very future of how we might seek to produce food in the future.

So, if the complex challenges of food waste and our future food security interest you, why not check out the Our Green Stories trail in person or here online.

The logo for Our Green Stories, an environmental and sustainability-related campaign by Museums Partnership Reading.

If you’d like to find out more about what you can do to help reduce food waste, visit Food Waste Action Week 2023.

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