The cafe at the Garden Museum

Reducing food waste

Jade-Lauren Cawthray, 16.01.2012
Museums have a responsibility to reduce food waste, says the Garden Museum's Jade-Lauren Cawthray
Between 15 and 18 million tonnes of food is thrown away every year in the UK, according to the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), which campaigns for recycling and reducing food waste. Meanwhile, the UN estimates that 927 million people suffered from starvation in 2010.

Food waste is not only a misdistribution of global resources but is a waste of land, water, human labour, natural resources and energy.

Food production is in conflict with the need of land for housing, leading international corporations to grab land from developing countries to supply our demand for food.

It can require up to 60% of available fresh water, making access to drinking water increasingly difficult for small communities, and also requires huge amounts of fossil fuel, for machinery, fertilisers, pesticides and transportation.

When we consider all the land, water and energy used to make a single piece of food and the impact that has on people around the world, we start to appreciate how precious a commodity that piece of food is.


As a sector that champions and celebrates culture and heritage from around the world, museums have a responsibility to support the people most dramatically affected by the production of food by reducing our waste.

Food waste also costs money, which makes absolutely no business sense.

Over-stocking and anxiety around food safety often leads to the disposal of edible food and takes up valuable space in waste bins, increasing waste disposal costs.

In the catering industry, managers are understandably cautious about serving food that is potentially past its best and we have as a nation become so used to immaculate-looking food items that we perceive any imperfection as an indication of rotten and harmful food.

But the disposal of a bruised vegetable, for example, incurs two costs – the cost of purchase and the cost of disposal – without any financial gain through the sale of a meal.

This is becoming an expensive issue as the government increases landfill tax to incentivise the redirection of waste from landfill.


The vegetarian cafe at the Garden Museum is managed in-house, which means we have control over the destination of all our food waste. All our fruit and vegetable peelings, undressed salad waste, bread and cake scraps, tea bags, ground coffee and paper napkins go straight to our compost bins, producing top quality soil for our garden.

We plan to invest in a wormery in the future, which will allow us to process all cooked and dressed vegetables, salads and dairy products, as well as plate waste.

Sorrel Ferguson, the museum’s cafe manager, is running the cafe at a profit due, in part, to her careful management of food. She feels wasting food is intrinsically bad: “Seeing big vats of wasted food is soul destroying.”

Ferguson advises making small batches of food to ensure that it all gets eaten and using vegetable peelings and tops to make stock. Food that truly is inedible can be composted or sent to an anaerobic digester through waste contractors. (Legislative pressure is creating a requirement for all food waste to be processed in this way.)

This ethos is valued by our visitors and fans such as former Gardeners’ World presenter Alys Fowler, and Cleve West, winner of Best in Show at Chelsea Flower Show in 2009, 2010 and 2011.


Suzanna James, one of the museum's venue hire caterers, is run as a zero-waste-to-landfill business. Food waste is minimised by carefully calculating exact amounts of food per person, adding 10% in quantity on top to ensure there is enough food for second servings and for the event staff.

The exact amounts are prepared off site and then combined at the event, as and when needed. This means that ingredients are kept separate and can be kept longer if unused.

If anything is left over after that, it is taken back to the company kitchens for storage and use for staff lunches.

If it cannot be stored, it is collected by a licensed contractor who takes it to be composted on an industrial scale, which is then purchased by London farmers. Even waste cooking oil is collected for the production of biodiesel.

Suzanne James won the Best Business for Sustainability at the 2011 South London Business Awards, and proves that it is possible to reduce food waste at a larger scale.

Reducing food waste is not only a matter of cutting costs for catering businesses, but also one of social and environmental stewardship towards developing countries.

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Jade-Lauren Cawthray is a sustainability of heritage trainee at the Garden Museum in London


The Garden Museum

Greener Museums (Museum Practice, 2006)

The Museums Association's sustainability pages


Suzanne James caterers