Rising economic costs and rising environmental costs- is reduced food the solution?
The cost of living is rising, food especially. Food can have a huge environmental footprint, whether it's from production, transport or waste. Estimates that up to 1/3 of food produced is wasted. So, is eating reduced food a good way to engage sustainability problems whilst tackling budget squeezes?
For the past month, I challenged myself to base my diet on reduced food as much as possible. Reduced food shopping is popular for frugalists so I wanted to give it a go. I chose to take on this challenge whilst in Edinburgh because we live next door to two major supermarkets and close to a third. Being able to pop into the shops within walking distance makes this do-able when I had no idea about what food waste I'd get, I didn't want to create a carbon footprint for the sake of a food waste challenge.
For my month, I ate reduced food as much as possible on my own. Lee was away for work, so I felt this was a fun opportunity to test out yellow sticker shopping for most of my meals. I am currently working nights/ early mornings doing bat ecology work alongside my masters- so I have a lot of flexibility when going to the shops.
So here are my key learnings from eating as much reduced food as possible for a month!
A big part of my life was spending thinking about reduced food, planning trips to get reduced food, visiting the supermarkets, trying to find reduced food and then planning/ prepping/ making use of reduced food... I learnt roughly when each supermarket would reduce food and would visit accordingly. This was really hit and miss, sometimes supermarkets would reduced bang on time, sometimes early sometimes much later. Only a few times I really hit a good time and managed to get a good shop- with many others picking up the reductions quickly too. I.e. it's hard to get the bargains most of the time. Sometimes reductions will be better than other days too. Some supermarkets have reduced sections whilst others simply reduce on the shelf in place. This often means a game of hide and seek when looking for reduced food items. Wandering the aisles in this manner I can only assume looks suspicious to security because I was often watched when hunting for reductions. I'm a white cis women, others may experience different (worse) things in this situation.
I had to let go of the notion of control of what I would be eating or ability to plan. Normally, planning is a huge part of trying to reduce waste. Reduction raiding means going with the flow and taking what you get that day. For me, prepping many meals on my own whilst Lee is away, this isn't too much of a problem. Some days have meant I don't necessarily know what I'll eat until right before dinner time (some supermarkets won't reduce until 5.30). For one person, this is fine. For a couple but especially a family, this would not be practical. Of course if you had a work schedule or commitments that can't get you to the shops when needed, it's completely impractical.
I didn't eat what I necessarily wanted- in the name of reducing food. I never buy something I don't like, but sometimes I admit, I would get caught up in the reductions and the challenge and would buy things I wouldn't choose. This often meant processed fresh foods, like vegan alternatives. It did make me more inventive with items I'd picked up too. Vegan sausage salad?
I spent double what I would normally spend on food per month. This one got me going *YIKES* when I looked back over my statements at the end of the challenge. I had a pretty good idea that I had spent more overall, seeing as I had been buying ready meals, when normally I would cook from fresh which works out cheaper usually even when the meal is reduced. I would normally spend about £15-17 per week on food just for myself when Lee is away. I eat mostly plant based which helps with that budget. I spent about £30-33 a week on food whilst trying to do this challenge. I am really shocked by this. It's hard to keep track of how much you're spending when you have no idea how much you'll spend when heading into the shop or what you'll get. Plus if you're heading to a few supermarkets, a £5 spend x 2 quickly adds up. I bought branded items at a reduced price, which probably equated to about the price (or a little more) than the home brand alternatives. Although you may be getting better quality (not always true though), your shop is not cheaper and this gives a false sense of security for letting in "treat" reduced items or those I wouldn't normally buy. Like chocolate desserts, only 0.63p they head into the basket as a bargain (80% off) but this all sneakily adds up- I wouldn't regularly buy chocolate desserts. Also, it's easy to let non reduced items slip into the basket whilst you're in the shop. I also spent money on items that I bought purely to avoid suspicion from supermarket security, if there were no good reductions. That part sucks and I'm not proud to admit it.
I ate more food than normal. This certainly contributed to spending more, but I did overall eat well/ if not better than normal. Fresh reduced food needs to be eaten quickly, so a pack of tomatoes would normally last a week chopped in salads etc, would need roasting instead and would last one pasta dinner. An example.
It's hard to budget. Not only did I spend a lot more than I expected due to sneaky spending/ false reality of "cheap" food , it would be incredibly hard to set a solid budget whilst on reduced food. I think this would be helped enormously if we had a freezer to bulk buy frozen items such as bread.
Although not a reliable source, I did manage to squeeze in more organic than I could normally afford. This was a great bonus, but I didn't save any money. So if you aren't on a super strict budget but do want to eat organic if you can, reduced is a great solution. Lettuce was commonly reduced in Sainsburys.
Lidl zero waste boxes are my favourite reduced item across any supermarket. They provide insanely good value of fresh, nutritious food. However, do check them before you buy. I did find some stores much better than others regarding quality. Sort as soon as you get home!
Reduced food shopping is really addictive. I got really used to looking at my watch ready to go to the shops to hunt for a bargain. At points, I found this draining and was excited for the challenge to end.
You MUST be excellent at storing food. Short life items need imagionation to be consumed rapidly but some items can be frozen. A big freezer is a huge bonus. I dehydrated a bit of food mainly for camping food as this process is long winded- too much so for regularly storing food. I had to be good at freezing as soon as I got home.
Other morals got lost in the reduced section. I ate more chicken than normal, far more plastic than normal passed through our door, as well as foods from exotic locations (that we don't normally buy) which was sometimes a real treat, like mango.
Over the course of this challenge, food price hikes were in the news daily. I have been shopping the reduced section and working with community fridges since 2019. In the short term I have noticed a rapid change in the availability of reduced food in stores but also reported from community fridges nationally. Double reductions are rare at the moment (the real bargains at the end of the day) and food is getting snapped up quickly. Either people are becoming more aware of environmental problems and preventing waste or are more in need of reduced food. This will always change rapidly.
Reduced food is a great way to supplement your shop, allows surprises for things you wouldn't normally buy, allow luxuries at prices you can afford. It can be fun. But suggesting reduced food is a way to survive on an extreme budget would be ignoring the hugely nuanced, complex side of shopping in this way that creates increased mental load, requires resources (time, money, sometimes equipment), reduces agency, sometimes choice and due to the nature of surplus food- is simply not always possible.
My advice is to get to know your shops, have a budget and stick to it, only buy what you truly need (it's not a bargain if you don't really need it), ensure you're ready to store it- a freezer is a huge bonus. Work reduced food into other ways you can save money and reduce your impact, like growing your own (even some herbs) or foraging seasonally such as blackberries, attending community fridges, purchasing seasonally and so many other ways. There is no "one solution" to complex problems.
I'm not going to end this challenge with policy suggestions for how to support those who need help with rising costs. It's an incredibly complex issue, that one blog post cannot address. But instead, to rebut the idea that saving money or reducing environmental footprint is as simple a "shopping the reduced section". This is simply not true and so we do need policies that support systems that ensure food security, including nutrition.