Can the crisis of food waste be solved with an iPhone app - or is Too Good To Go too good to be true?

| 12th February 2018
Sasha with food

Sasha Dovzhyk eyes a discount lunch bought using an iPhone app designed to reduce food waste. 

The Ecologist
Can an iPhone App help London get cheap eats - and help reduce the tragedy of food waste? Platform capitalism has delivered cheaper cabs, cheaper places to crash and cheaper stuff. But it is often driven by venture capitalism and has a steep social cost. But not always. So is 'Too Good To Go' too good to be true? SASHA DOVZHYK, a PhD student surviving in London, investigates..

'It is good for environment, so it is good for all of us’, the owner replies. Humbled, I walk home savouring my burning-hot saltena...

As an international student in the UK, you are meant to feel incredibly lucky and seriously screwed, all at once. You get to be part of what looks like the outer world – cosmopolitan, exhilarating, and complex.

You also find yourself dumbstruck by its cultivated first-world problems. Finally, you yourself become complicit in some of its delinquencies – such as the food waste problem.

As for now, one third of food produced globally goes straight to the bin. Leaving alone individual households, UK commercial and industrial businesses in the food sector throw away just under three million metric tons of food and drink per year, amounting to a value of over £4.3 billion.

500,000 meals

Coming from Ukraine, a country which, during my grandparents’ lifetime, had 10 million people starved to death in Stalin’s famine-genocide, I don’t suffer food waste gladly.

Nor does it help that I am a cost-conscious student whose diet has consisted of up to 50% walnuts that I brought to London from the last break at home.

What has emerged as one of the more helpful tools, however, is a smartphone app called Too Good To Go. It was developed by a bunch of masterminds likewise troubled by ubiquitous food waste and launched in 2016.

This app allows you to buy some of the tasty, precious, surplus food that accumulates at local stores and restaurants at the shift’s end. Your smartphone tells you when, where and how many perfectly good meals are ready for pick-up.

Too Good To Go has already saved 120,000 meals in the UK since launch, with a projected total of 500,000 meals expected to be reached by the end of 2018.

Consider also the decrease in CO2 emissions related to food waste. Fully aware that this sounds too good to be true, I decided to record my interactions with the app for one week. 

Day 1
I wake up to my new life as food-waste warrior and start browsing through the app. The confetti of green dots in the Too Good To Go map tells me there are plenty of places around my central-London college that have partnered with the app. I press on a green dot which provides a morning pick-up slot. For the price of £2.5, I sort out my breakfast plans and walk to the hotel.

This 10am arrival at the dim-lit restaurant of a 4-stars Pullman Hotel is absolutely off-brand for me. I feel adventurous. A friendly hostess confirms my order, produces a takeaway box and sends me to the breakfast buffet.

With growing enthusiasm, I begin to process the selection and quickly realise that the lean times are over. After lining my box with hash browns and mushrooms, I linger in front of a cheese trencher and try to come up with a sensible camembert to goat's cheese ratio.

There is so much to learn. And then there's a platter with smoked salmon. Fresh berries, pineapple slices. Peaches. Baklava. My breakfast box carries me through the day. 

Day 2
I wake up with the phantom smell of the Pullman hash browns filling my nostrils and buy two takeaway boxes first thing in the morning (£2.5 x2).

I then text my boyfriend and invite him to feast with me. When a day of PhD labours dissolves the memory of breakfast omelette, we venture to rescue some dainties from Syrup of Soot, a Victorian coffeehouse steps away from the British Museum.

There we receive two warmed-up grilled egg toasts for £2.5 each. This might not sound like the deal of the century, unless you spot their regular price: £6, so very central London.

The boyfriend artfully affects fainting from hunger. In sympathy with the struggle of this two-meter-person, the owner gives away the last of the toasties from the dish for free and single-handedly saves the day.

Day 3
I discover that one of my Bloomsbury favourites – 49 Café – features on the food-rescuing map. How does any food manage to escape the endlessly long lunchtime queues which are part of this place's legend?

It appears that the deli has been involved in the Too Good To Go campaign for several months and has successfully solved its food waste problem.

Happily, I throw in my lot with them, paying £2.75 for a gargantuan box of pasta and salad. Such a treat can safely and reliably block food-related thoughts for a minimum of twelve hours.

Day 4
It’s time to pay another visit to the Pullman Hotel (£2.5). There’s a certain deficit of kiwifruits, French toasts, and raspberries in my life. I feel pampered.

By the time I have finished my daily 3.5-mile walk from home to Bloomsbury, I am craving for all the heavy fillers in the buffet. Encouraged by friendly staff, I start taking foodporn pics to circulate among my contacts. One raspberry flushed down the drain is one too many.

For my evening meal, I choose Hummus Bros at Holborn (£2.5) – and a lucky choice it is. The staff couldn’t be more understanding. They fill my box with falafel and quinoa salad, couscous and hummus, and then place an extra box of aubergine raita on top. This is gluttony.

Day 5
I discover a busy local spot – Nora Café – a stone’s throw from the British Library. This is my £2.5 luncheon.

Serving a generous portion of pasta and embroidering it with olives and salad, Illivio, the café’s owner, tells me that they have been in the programme for two years – and have been donating their Too Good To Go profit to charities.

‘It’s a chain of social justice’, he notes, ‘I wish everybody were doing that’. Thanks, Illivio, for feeding my messiah complex as well as my growling stomach.

It is Friday: one is expected to pay a visit to a student bar after daytime labours. Past two G&Ts, I foresee tomorrow’s yearning for high-carb foods. Contrary to scientific knowledge, I strongly believe in the power of a hearty meal to take care of my hangover.

I order two portions (£2.95 x2) at French restaurant La Ferme in Clerkenwell and pick up containers with heavenly-smelling warm tartiflettes. One box disappears inside the boyfriend that same evening to a laudatory review. The second one is to support my emotional wellbeing while I edit a thesis chapter on Saturday.

Day 6
Saturdays in the university PhD room can be long and lonesome, unless a tartiflette keeps you company. Noted, remembered.

I carefully plan my home route in order to pass by El Rincon Quiteno, a restaurant at the Holloway Road serving Bolivian and Ecuadorian dishes. Seeing me at the doorstep, phone in hand, eyes watery with hunger, the owner identifies me at once as a Too Good To Go acolyte.

While he is fixing my vegetable tortilla (£3.5), I describe my starvation in colourful details. For such eloquence, he awards me with an extra saltena, a Bolivian take on Cornish pastry which I was dying to try. ‘How good is Too Good to Go for you anyway?’

I inquire, ostensibly failing a business talk. ‘It is good for environment, so it is good for all of us’, the owner replies. Humbled, I walk home savouring my burning-hot saltena and a recipe on how to stop worrying about money and save the planet from food waste.

This Author

Sasha Dovzhyk is studying a PhD in literature at Berkbeck University. She tweets at @sasha_weirdsley