Will you be trying these brand new ‘wonky’ fruit and veg crisps?
- Credit: Archant
Ben Whitehead is trying to make a difference by producing snacks from fruit and veg which would otherwise be thrown away.
Tackling food waste has become a hot topic. On a national and a local level, the government and independent bodies are investing heavily in dealing with discarded food, with Michael Gove just last October saying £15 million would be ploughed into a pilot scheme to reduce waste, working with businesses and charities.
Tens of millions of tonnes of fruit and vegetables alone are discarded across Europe each year, having been overcropped, or deemed not 'perfect' enough to reach supermarket shelves.
Ben Whitehead, founder of the East of England Co-op's newest supplier, Spare Snacks, says he wants to, in his own small way, contribute to the solution of food waste, sourcing ingredients from across the UK and the rest of Europe which would otherwise be thrown away, as the basis for his healthy range of crisps.
The entrepreneur, born in Stowmarket, saw first-hand growing up the waste farms are forced to generate in order to meet supermarket demand, while working as a fruit picker.
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'It just didn't make sense to me,' he says. 'I grew up in a single parent family with my mum and sisters, and mum would never throw anything away. She'd reuse everything in the fridge – I used to joke the hummus would get a pension because she wouldn't waste a morsel. I learnt the value of food through her and through fruit picking because the amount of waste I saw stuck with me.'
Ben says he wanted to do something for good and something for the environment, and reveals working for a food waste charity really opened his eyes.
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'So much food waste, especially at farm level is unquantified. A lot of farmers I've worked with historically won't want to talk about waste. They say, 'yes sometimes we do plough it back into the ground because it's not of value'. Anything not perfectly green or red will get rejected or sold at a loss. None of these outcomes are good for the farmer who's invested time, money and energy into growing their produce. It's not sustainable.'
It took a while for Ben to find his foodie feet. First came running a burger stall. Then he helped set up an ethical salad business. But he decided he wanted to be his own boss.
'I applied for some funding from a couple of organisations with an idea around food waste. 'They said 'it sounds great but you have to prove the market' so I literally went to my local market and waited until after it had finished to see if there was any waste. I got offered 12 boxes of pineapples, each with 10 in! I took as much as I could and created some weird and wonderful things.
'The next week I went back and the wholesaler offered me over 500kg of red grapes as he was just going to leave them there. He said it was better for him to ditch them and get fresh stuff for the next market!'
Ben's only just finished using up the raisins he produced with the grapes and says he made loads of other snacks, selling at a local café and getting great feedback from customers who said they were happy to eat food made with waste ingredients…as long as it was clean.
'I decided to make this work I had to go to farms. I started working with some in Kent making juice and apple crisps and took them to a trade show, crazily with just 24 hours notice. All the interest was in the crisps. It became clear to me the juice market is saturated, but that fruit crisps are more innovative because they're low calorie and high in fibre. I decided to go for it.'
After a few false starts with manufacturers, Ben found a home for producing his range, and has so far managed to get Spare Snacks listed in Selfridges, through Ocado, and at over 60 East of England Co-op Stores.
Ben 'rescues' produce from all over Europe and says although there are other veg crisps on the market, his are markedly different.
'A lot of vegetable crisps' underlying taste is oil and salt. It's not unpleasant, but our crisps actually taste of the produce. The process we use to make them intensifies the flavour and gives a natural crunch without the need to fry. When you fry you burn off the nutrients and add saturated fat. We've been doing lots of tastings in Co-ops and the feedback's been great.'
He says the reception to the crisps in London was a little bit different, as consumers tried to get their heads around the origin of his ingredients.
'There are so many preconceptions over imperfect produce we have to challenge. When I first sold in Selfridges and told my story, people said 'are these free?' 'are they from the bin?'. That's why we tend to label them as 'wonky' fruit and vegetables, it's a bit easier for people to understand.'
Ben produces Apple, Pear and Beetroot crisps, as well as Apple and Cinnamon, Pear and Ginger and Beetroot with Apple Cider Vinegar –all made with no added sugar or salt.
'Anything we do add is natural, delicious and good for you,' he smiles.
Spare Snacks are ideal for lunchboxes – pick up a pack and look out for tastings at your local East of England Co-op or independent food store or farm shop.