Olio: An interview with food entrepreneur Tessa Cook

In this post, Tracy talks to food entrepreneur Tessa Cook, the founder of OLIO – a free app that connects neighbours with each other and with local shops & cafes so that surplus food can be shared, not thrown away.

Tell me a bit about your background and what led to you setting up OLIO?

I’m a farmer’s daughter, and so have always hated throwing away good food. This is because I know from first-hand experience just how much hard work goes into producing it! After university I left the farm and went to London. I had no idea what I wanted to do and so became a strategy consultant in order to get a broad range of experience across different industries. I then moved into media and worked my way up to become a divisional Managing Director. After that I spent 4 years at Dyson as MD of all things digital and that was followed by a stint in financial services.

The inspiration for OLIO came two and half years ago when I was moving country and found myself on moving day with some good food that we hadn’t managed to eat, but that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away. And so I set off on a bit of a wild goose chase to try and find someone to give it to, and I failed miserably. Through the whole process it seemed to me crazy that I should have to throw this food away when there were surely plenty of people within hundreds of metres of me who would love it, the problem was they just didn’t know about it. And so the idea of OLIO, a mobile app where neighbours and local shops & cafes can share surplus food, came about.

For those people involved in OLIO, what types are most active?

It might sound like a bit of a cliché but we believe that OLIO is more of a mindset than a demographic. This is because what’s really surprising is just how diverse our user base is, with people coming from truly all walks of life! Having said that, we tend to have a higher representation of women than men, and we over index on 25-44 year olds vs other age groups. Whilst 90% of our users are from the UK, 10% are from over 100 other countries around the world!

How important is the role of packaging design in preventing food waste i.e portion sizes, protecting the contents etc?

Food waste and packaging have a complex relationship with one another. On the one hand packaging can help prevent food waste by extending shelf life, preventing damage and through including less perfect produce with ‘perfect’ produce. However on the other hand packaging can also lead to greater food waste as single person households in particular find it extremely difficult to buy food in smaller portion sizes. We also find that OLIOers are very concerned with issues of waste and sustainability more broadly and so they have a strong appetite for reduced quantities of packaging and non-plastic packaging alternatives. Finally, there are some very interesting packaging innovations that we’ve seen that we think can help reduce food waste further such as the smart packaging from Bump Mark Technologies that can detect the actual quality of the food inside it, and earlier this year we saw some ‘snap’ packaging from Sainsburys that divided larger quantities into separate portions for storing/freezing.

What are your thoughts about the circular economy specific to food waste – has the increasing interest in the methodology helped you spread the word about OLIO?

In many ways the circular economy is a very old concept, in particular as it relates to food, because there is evidence that human beings have been sharing food for over 2 million years! And so the current very linear model of production and consumption is really only a phenomenon of the past 50 years or so. We’re extremely excited to see the growing momentum of the circular economy movement, because the current approach is completely unsustainable. Taking food specifically for example, over 1/3 of all the food we produce globally gets thrown away, while 800m people go hungry and food waste is the 3rd largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the USA and China. In developed countries, well over half of all food waste takes place in the home with the average UK family for example throwing away £700 of food that could’ve been eaten, which collectively adds up to £13bn p.a. Through solutions such as OLIO, if we can get neighbours and communities to share their surplus food rather than throw it away, then we can take great steps towards achieving a more sustainable, and circular, food system.

For anyone reading this article, what 3 things can they do today to get involved?

Great question! First, you can download the OLIO app from the App Store or Google Play, and then have a cupboard clear out and add any surplus food to the app – with 40% of food items being requested in less than an hour, it will likely get snapped up fast! Second, you can email us on volunteer@olioex.com or check out the volunteering section of our web site to find out more about how you can help spread the word about OLIO in your local community. And finally, you can consider signing up to become a Food Waste Hero which involves collecting unsold food at the end of the day from one of our retailer partners e.g. a supermarket or bakery, and re-distributing that to your local community via the app. We would *love* your readers to get involved, and are confident that they’ll find that food sharing is easy and fun!

To find out more about OLIO visit www.olioex.com

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