Reframing the debate on food poverty and systematic food waste

Collection of groceries, Image credit: Magda Ehlers

Meeting the urgent needs of people living with food poverty, and devising a long-term strategy for preventing food waste, is the focus of new research led by Dr Effie Papargyropoulou from the School of Earth and Environment

In many communities, food insecurity poses challenges that mean food banks and redistribution services are the only way for some individuals - who have low income or are homeless - to feed their families and survive. 

“Food banks have become an accepted part of society,” said Dr Papargyropoulou. “The UK’s mainstream narrative paints the picture of hungry people getting the food, which does not go to landfill, as an accomplishment and as the end goal. But there are two separate issues that should be addressed on a systematic level: these are food insecurity and food waste prevention.” 

Through the FAmiSHEd (Interactions between Food wAste, Surplus and HungEr) research project, Dr Papargyropoulou is investigating the root causes of food poverty and systematic food waste. Redesigning the food system to eliminate unnecessary food surplus would prevent food waste. Tackling the root causes of poverty could address household level food insecurity.

There are two separate issues that should be addressed on a systematic level: these are food insecurity and food waste prevention.

Effie Papargyropoulou, School of Earth and Environment

Taking a proactive standpoint, Dr Papargyropoulou investigates how food becomes waste, and identifies successful methods to intervene in the process and prevent it. By working with local government and a variety of third-sector representatives, she has helped to reframe the debate around food poverty alleviation and aims to shape policy.

The project includes regional academic partners and brings together interdisciplinary academic expertise across the universities of Leeds, Sheffield, and Newcastle. The research is funded by the N8 AgriFood Resilience Programme. 

Transdisciplinary research 

Dr Papargyropoulou puts her transdisciplinary perspective into action by collaborating with non-academic partners. FAmiSHEd includes a network of stakeholders from the third sector, retailers, and charities participating in food surplus redistribution. She has fostered a co-production of knowledge through this network, delivering public engagement activities such as workshops and focus groups. 

“Each project has co-design from the very beginning,” said Dr Papargyropoulou. “Engaging with stakeholders to try to understand food waste causes from a variety of perspectives has led to the most effective solutions. I work with both academic and non-academic collaborators, because ultimately the impact goes beyond academia and advocating pragmatic change is the research goal.” 

Co-production proved fruitful for Dr Papargyropoulou when leading a six-year collaboration with the Malaysian Government. Businesses in Malaysia’s hospitality sector were given bespoke food waste prevention plans designed using her work, and a policy brief tackling the country’s waste management issues was produced.

Each project has co-design from the very beginning. Engaging with stakeholders to try to understand food waste causes from a variety of perspectives has led to the most effective solutions.

Dr Effie Papargyropoulou, School of Earth and Environment

Uniquely, Dr Papargyropoulou took an ‘on-the-ground’ approach to evaluating how organisations in the food service and hospitality sector dealt with food and food waste. She identified interventions to prevent food waste at each part of the process by observing and working with employees at all levels.

She examined the company’s top-level processes, and investigated each aspect down to the menu design and staff delivering at front-of-house services. This enabled her to closely understand the detailed workings of the organisation, giving feedback that yielded real change on a fundamental and operational level.

Equipping these organisations with tailored strategies enabled them to make long-term systematic changes for sustainable outcomes. It also encouraged responsible consumer behavior, such as reducing excess banqueting requirements for weddings and events. 

World-leading research 

Dr Papargyropoulou conducts research at Leeds’ world-leading Global Food and Environment Institute (GFEI), which has the aim of developing solutions that enable food systems to be both climate friendly and socially just. 

She is the Programme Lead for Sustainable Food Systems MSc, a highly interdisciplinary programme drawing on academic expertise from a variety of disciplines ranging from environmental and food science to sustainable business, geography and psychology.  

The University of Leeds offers a variety of funded project opportunities to postgraduate researchers in the field of sustainable food systems and welcomes applications. 

Main image credit: Magda Ehlers

Contact us 

If you would like to discuss this area of research in more detail, please contact Dr Effie Papargyropoulou.