In conversation with Jim Mullan from SecondBite

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Our Head of Pro Bono and Community Impact, Dan Creasey (DC), spoke with Jim Mullan (JM), CEO of SecondBite, about building a leading national food rescue organisation. 

DC: Jim, can you tell us about your organisation SecondBite, when you commenced and what the ultimate aim and objective of your organisation is?

JM: SecondBite is heading towards its fifteenth birthday. We were established by Simone and Ian Carson who had been at an event in Melbourne and noticed all of this food coming out of the venue being dumped as they were leaving. It made them think about what happens to food that is not going to be eaten or sold. So in it's earliest incarnation SecondBite was basically a family and friends' activity with the Carsons, their Volvo and market trips at the close of business on a Saturday and Sunday. They would go around the market and collect whatever the sellers weren't going to hold on to and take it to Sacred Heart Mission, who would turn it into meals for people who were food insecure and vulnerable. That was the start of SecondBite.  For most of the first three years it was fairly Melbourne-centric, very focussed on the relationships with all of the markets around the city. ANZ was the first organisation to support us, which allowed things to become slightly more formalised. The big year change for SecondBite came when Ian McLeod, the Managing Director of Coles, sought to provide a food rescue service across 700 Coles stores in addition to their distribution centres. Ian asked a number of NGOs, he asked all of the organisations who were already in this space and they all turned him down.

When he asked SecondBite, in a moment of complete insanity, someone said yes.  And suddenly this very small organisation had a $30 billion partner and had to figure out how it was going to service the entire Coles network. 

We are now the widest provider of food rescue services to the retail sector in Australia.  Our principal partner is Coles, but we have worked with all of the retailers right across the country at various points. We also have a national relationship with 7-Eleven. As an organisation, last year we collected 19.4 million kilograms of food that was heading for landfill that was able to be redistributed to people who need to eat.

DC: The connection between food poverty affecting a large section of the global population and the everyday wastage of food, particularly in high income countries like Australia, raises significant academic public attention.  Do all the actors in the food chain have a role to play in reducing food waste, including farmers, food manufacturers, processors, caterers, and if so, who is stepping up more than others?

JM: In my experience, there is no-one in the chain who is interested in wasting food, which is a start. Clearly for restaurants and organisations in this space, food waste hits the bottom line. So they have a high degree of focus on reducing wastage. For the major retailers there is a growing focus on sustainability and their role as a corporate citizen, which is driving a lot of this activity. The initital driver for Coles to partner with a food rescue organisaiton was the front line staff stores asking why they were throwing all this food out which could be put to better use. It was the voice of the workers that pushed it to the top. 

My experience of producers is that they would rather do anything with the product than leave it to wither on the vine or to plough back into the ground.  But there are challenges around agriculture in particular, it's not an exact science, there are all sorts of variables, for example in the climate and the way a farm works, so there tends to be a degree of over-production built in which is the producer's safety net. They also have to factor in selectivity of their buyers, the retail sector, where the look of a product is factored in as much as it's quality.  

In short most people are engaged and are trying to figure out ways not only to do things better but also to support organisations like ourselves around distributing as much of this food as possible.  

DC: We hear lots of very concerning statistics about how much food is being wasted by households in Australia every year.  How do you see Australia compared to other industrialised countries in terms of wastage?

JM: OK so the statistics can be manipulated.  If you work out per capita waste in developed economies, then we are number one. But we are number one because we are a large producer of food with a small population. So for the shock factor these are some interesting numbers to play with but when you begin to look at the total waste for each country, Australia is at about 8 million tonnes whereas China is more than 60 million tonnes.  So the per capita figure isn't always a useful indicator.
The interesting piece for me, and it might be contentious - poor people don't waste food. In sub-Saharan Africa good waste per year per head of population is 11 kilograms. Interestingly where food is lost is also different between high income and developing economies. In developing and emerging economies more food is wasted before harvest as opposed to by the consumer. That has to do with climatic conditions and production facilities and the effectiveness of their technologies. 

DC: I wanted to ask you about the laws and regulations that perhaps need to change or be introduced to Australia to assist in food wastage reduction - are there specific things that if you were sitting down with the Prime Minister today that you would ask for?

JM: I think when it comes to driving change, some of the responsibility lies with the States. Historically, you've had significant variation in landfill costs from State to State.  However, if a policy decision was made to really penalise people for landfilling that would change everything, that is what drives behavioural change in the system. If you incur costs you're going to make sure as little as possible gets to the point that it would attract a fee. For example, in manufacturing in Europe there's a concept of producer pays, so if you're building your BMW in a factory in Germany, you're going to make sure that the design incorporates every element produced.

I suppose the element that can't be ignored in all of this is domestic food waste. Attitudinal change is difficult and the vast majority of food that is wasted in households in this country are where incomes are over $100,000 so food becomes more about convenience and lifestyle choice. For those earning in higher income brackets it can be easier to just dump everything out your fridge and then replace it at the shops. They often don't have the time to work their way through purchased produce, plan meals, etc. Trying to effect the same kind of change on a moral basis as opposed to a necessity feels like it could be a long way off so I'm always much more optimistic about what will happen on the industrial side than the domestic side of this equation because I think the drivers are different.  

DC: I'm really interested in a lot of the data and statistics that you have referred to today. Off the top of your head, do you have anything available that talks to what corporate offices waste and whether you've seen a change in the approach of businesses?

JM: By comparison with the big numbers we see elsewhere the numbers for coporates are very small. Even in corporate entertaining and catering and stuff like that with left over food, which you would see at KWM, there is a constant gauge on food prep and judging how much needs to be rolled out throughout the course of the evening. So even though you've seen all of the sandwich platters scraped into a bin at the end of the night and you think that's terrible, it is on a very very small scale.

We have also been the beneficiary of KWM's hospitality around the country, and you don't produce a lot of waste. Historically catering was ok, we are going to have 200 people so we're just going to create enough food to satisfy 200 people and push it out. However, it's much more sophisticated than that now. It's managed in real time.

At the end of the day, food waste isn't a good look for anyone involved and these events are expensive to run so cost is also a huge factor. 

DC: Are there certain things, types of mindful behaviour, that people can incorporate that would help them to reduce their own wastage?

JM: There are a couple of things on a personal level. The two most effective tips that I've heard given with respect to the purchase of foods is - (1) always make a list and (2) never shop when you are hungry.

So with respect to your decisions as you walk around your local Coles or Woolworths, those two are the important influencers. The great Matt Preston, who is one of our directors, has two nights a week in his household where they just open the fridge make a meal from whatever is in it.   

It shows that your mindfulness has to have structure. You have to develop good habits around about this and those three are the ones that resonate most.

DC: Final question for you Jim - people who are reading this blog can support Secondbite's work through KWM in a couple ways.  You are one of our DigDeep® partners so people can donate to you on a monthly basis. You are also a good provider of pro bono work so people can also provide support there.  Are there any other ways even outside of KWM that our people can support your important work?

JM: KWM make a huge difference to our work every year so that has to be said straight off the bat. We are always interested in having conversations about volunteering opportunities or how you can engage directly with the organisation but this is the piece of advice that I give most often to those who want to contribute. Certainly in the major cities you will be no more than two kilometres away from an organisation that provides emergency food relief.  And there are two things that you can do straight away. The first is you can give some of your time to just find out what the local organisation is and what help they may need. What is particularly useful to organisations is support and advice that they can get from people who are highly skilled because even if you are running a very small organisation, there will be requirements you have to meet so having a friendly face who also happens to be from a legal background can be very important.  The second thing is, and you can make this part of your list, when you go around the supermarket, list some pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes.  Some small shopping basket of items that will not cost you an arm and a leg and find out who that organisation is and drop them into them because they will make a real difference to someone probably that same day.Tell your friends about it. Tell your family about it. Because it has a huge impact when you take action where you live and that is what makes our movement really powerful.

DC: Superbly put Jim and a perfect note to finish on today. Thank you very much Jim. Great to talk to you. It is a great privilege for KWM to work with and alongside you and your team. 

JM: Always a pleasure.