Turning agricultural surplus into innovative menu development

Waste Knot is connecting farmers with foodservice and promoting a fresh approach to dish creation.

15 January 2020
farmingfood wasterestaurantssustainabilityvegetables

Last year, circular economy charity WRAP released what it described as the “most detailed study of food surplus and waste in primary production undertaken for the UK.” In it, the organisation estimated that 1.6m tonnes of food waste is created every year during the farming and harvesting process; if sold, it would have a market value of £650m.

Waste Knot is one company that is trying to help growers of fruit and veg realise at least some of this money. They do this not through an app, as with consumer-facing food waste businesses like Olio and Too Good To Go, but by building up a food surplus network.

“Waste Knot is basically the connector between farms and the catering industry,” explains founder Jess Latchford. “We make the connections between farmers who have surplus and chefs in the hospitality industry that want to put it to good use.”

The organisation has been working with independent restaurants and cafes as well as larger catering companies for the past four years, but Latchford says that there has been a noticeable surge in interest recently.

“I would say that the whole food waste agenda has certainly increased in terms of it being more prevalent, especially for big companies, because they have the most influence,” she adds. “They just can’t be seen to not be doing all they can to tackle the ginormous problems of our times, and this is one of those colossal problems that needs to be addressed.”

Keeping it commercial

While one of the key reasons for a foodservice business to utilise agricultural surplus might be to demonstrate a concern for sustainability, Latchford is also keenly aware that her proposition needs to make economic sense too.

“It is a food waste industry, because businesses like Waste Knot need to be doing good, but commercially, otherwise it’s not going to be sustainable – in the true sense of the word!” she says. “I think there are so many little pockets of people doing things that are just going to get bigger, and the impact is just going to get wider and wider.”

There are of course difficulties in initially implementing the system: it requires a rethink of infrastructure on both the farming and the hospitality side, as well as a more flexible and fast-moving approach from chefs when it comes to menu development.

“There’s been a monumental shift in ways of working and mindset,” explains Latchford of the businesses Waste Knot works with. “The way that they are now working is farmer-led instead of chef-led. They are being told what’s available at the farms in terms of surplus and developing their recipes around that. And it might be only a week in advance that they find out what they’re going to be getting in terms of produce.”

On the whole, Latchford says businesses have been receptive to the idea, especially now that the concept is a little more proven.

“A lot of processes within the food industry don’t make sense as they stand, and this [food waste] is a prime example,” she says. “We’re just doing something to right the wrong, so it doesn’t take much convincing at all that this is what needs to be done.”

 Innovative lines

Contracts are usually designed in favour of the purchaser instead of the supplier, and while Latchford doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon, she believes that what can change is the way food waste is dealt with, encouraging commercial outlets to cook with this produce.

In addition to encouraging the use of surplus, Waste Knot is also advocating for the incorporation of “innovative lines”: this includes unusual crops that are being trialled by farmers as well as parts of plants that that wouldn’t necessarily be harvested, like cauliflower leaves and avocado blossom.

The plan going forward is to grow the farms the company works with, while building distribution networks and expanding to other countries.

Latchford also thinks consumers should be made more aware of what’s going on in the food industry to counteract food waste, in order to help them understand the part they can play in helping to solve the problem and keep up the momentum.

“What it all needs to come down to is education and a reconnection with food and the people that grow it,” she concludes. “Because until people have that, the respect isn’t there, and the waste is just going to continue.”

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