As Melbourne and Brisbane plunged into lockdown this week, new waves of panic buying began at Woolworths and Coles supermarkets.
It happens every time a lockdown is declared – Australians, hit with news they’ll be forced to stay at home for extended periods, rush out to shops and buy up goods in droves over a 24 hour period.
But how much of this food is actually finding its way into Australian stomachs?
Advocates fear significant amounts are being binned, worsening a $12 billion household waste crisis costing average households $2250 a year.
Carolyn Cameron, general manager of sustainability at Food Innovation Australia, said lockdowns wreak havoc on household routines, throwing out food planning and driving significant amounts of extra waste.
“Retailers we’re working with are indicating they’re sales are almost like Christmas when we enter lockdown,” Ms Cameron told TND.
“People are buying more food than they can possibly consume.”
Ronni Kahn, founder of food rescue charity OzHarvest, said COVID-19 has encouraged more home cooking, which is positive, but drives more deliveries, which are associated with higher levels of food waste.
“Many people went into panic buying, the supermarkets were emptied and there’s been more and more home deliveries, which we know will result in more food waste,” Ms Kahn said.
Ms Kahn, who is urging a “big step change” in how Australians handle food waste, stresses that there has never been a better time to solve the issue in your kitchen, cost of living pressures are growing right now as fresh food prices soar.
Australia is buying more food
Food isn’t just becoming more expensive either, we’re also buying more.
Although no one is tracking everyone’s bins, per person food purchase volumes did rise by about $90 in during 2020, according to ABS data.
Reflecting a shift away from eating out, food sales volumes on average are 3.9 per cent higher in the 18 months since COVID than before it, even though Australia’s population rose just 0.3 per cent during 2020.
But even when falls in restaurant, cafe and takeaway sales are included, the amount of food Australia is buying is still higher than pre-COVID.
The key question is: How much of this extra food is ending up in bins?
Previous survey data has suggests about 20 per cent of Australian household food budgets ends up in the bin on average, which implies a sizeable increase in waste is associated with this higher food spending.
Household food waste crisis
The issue is households were already wasting about $12 billion worth of food every year before COVID-19 reared its head, Ms Cameron said.
The Australian government tasked Food Innovation Australia with putting together a feasibility study in 2020 to examine whether it was possible to eliminate food waste nationwide within 10 years. It found the average household is throwing away more than $2000 worth of food every year.
“The land being used to grow food that has been wasted is bigger than the state of Victoria,” Ms Cameron said. “It just blows my mind.”
About 7.6 million tonnes of food is wasted in Australia annually, costing the economy an estimated $36.6 billion – that’s equivalent to about one in every four dollars Australians spent on food over the past year.
“We need to get households to reduce their food waste by 30 per cent if we’re going to meet our 2030 target,” Ms Cameron said.
Look, buy, store and cook
Ms Kahn said Australia needs a “big step change” in its attitude if we’re going to meet the government’s lofty 2030 targets.
It starts with households, she told The New Daily.
“We’ve got a new mantra – look, buy, store and cook,” Ms Kahn said.
“Look at what you have in your pantry, fridge and kitchen before you buy anything else, then you buy only what you need, you store that food so it lasts longer, and then you cook what you’ve bought before you buy the next thing.”
Ms Kahn said it sounds silly, but that households could save $4000 each year if they implemented the plan successfully and eliminated waste.
Cooking is the vital stage, Ms Kahn stressed, because without skills to be able to understand how to make the most of the food we buy, waste is an inevitable by product.
“We’ve got to learn to cook, learn to love it and learn to value food,” she said.