Food Waste

Leftovers: Bristol’s role in food waste history 

By Eleanor Barnett

In Leftovers: A History of Food Waste & Preservation Bristolian Eleanor Barnett delves into the centuries-long saga of food waste, from Tudor England to present-day crises. Through captivating narratives of resilience and resourcefulness, this new book explores how communities like Bristol’s have grappled with food waste, weaving a compelling tale of moral imperatives and environmental consciousness.

Join Eleanor on a journey through history and discover how lessons from the past can shape a more sustainable future for food. 

After years of poor harvests, in 1596 England faced a devastating subsistence crisis. The cost of flour had nearly tripled in just a few years, and wealthy landowners closed off their fields to common pasture so that ordinary people could no longer feed their livestock. Riots ensued across the country.

As more inhabitants fell into food insecurity, wasting food was simply not an option for ordinary people, who sought out novel ways of making the most of what little they had. One cookbook recommended making ‘sweete and delicate cakes’ with parsnip in place of spices and sugar, for example, while old stale bread could be used up in an anything-goes soup or ‘hochpot’.

Sermons urged the wealthy to distribute their leftovers to those in need, leaning on Biblical parables like Dives and Lazarus, in which the rich man went to hell after denying a poor homeless man the crumbs from his table. From the Tudor kitchen right up to the present day, my new book Leftovers: A History of Food Waste and Preservation asks how food waste has been understood over the past half-millennium, and how our ancestors sought to avoid it through the preservation of food, the culinary reimagining of leftovers, and the recycling of uneaten food scraps.  

Though today packed supermarket shelves give the illusion of endless bounty, threats to our food supply have occurred with some regularity since Tudor times, forcing food waste in the face of hunger to the forefront of public consciousness. Leftovers moves through the World Wars, the 2007 World Food Price Crisis, and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Bristol, Caring in Bristol’s ‘Cheers Drive’ campaign was one of a multitude of incredible local enterprises helping to tackle food waste during the Coronavirus crisis that I –a proud Bristolian – highlight in the book. As restaurants were forced to abruptly close their doors, renowned local chef Josh Eggleton started cooking up the remaining food in his fish and chip shop that would otherwise end up in the bin, transforming it into tasty dishes for the homeless people who the council had temporarily housed in hotels. The initiative soon expanded, in total making 1,200 meals for 400 homeless people using food saved from several restaurants, their suppliers, and then from FareShare South West.

Pie with 'Bristol Bites Back Better' text cut out with pastry

During the pandemic, numerous local charities relied on supplies provided by FareShare, the UK’s largest charitable redistributor of food, which collects surpluses of food from farmers, packers, manufacturers, and retailers to stop it from going to waste. In a monumental organisational feat, FareShare South West distributed more than two million meals to over 300 organisations between March and July 2020 alone.  

Also born in the pandemic, Bristol’s ‘Bite Back Better’ campaign launched in November 2020 to teach people how best to make use of leftovers at home, to produce their own food, and support local food businesses.

In collaboration with Feeding Bristol and Bristol Early Years, the Children’s Kitchen continues to give nursery school children from food-insecure areas the opportunity to grow and eat their own crops. By connecting with the time, energy, and labour that goes into making it, these projects born from crisis continue to teach people about the true value of food and the imperative that it doesn’t go to waste.   

Today, food waste is a pressing environmental concern. If all the food needlessly discarded globally were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Just as was true in the Tudor era, these Bristol initiatives show how food waste is also a deeply moral issue that reflects the divide between the rich and poor.

The average UK household throws away £500 worth of perfectly good food each year, while in Bristol 22% of our children experienced hunger in 2020. Similarly, King Henry VIII’s stomach bulged while the Tudor poor gleaned fields for scraps of the harvest. In investigating the history of food waste in Britain, Leftovers tells us much more about the value (or lack thereof) that we as a society have placed on food, people, and the planet. In our quest to create a more sustainable food system, can we learn from the wasteful mistakes and thrifty triumphs of the past?  

Jean-François Millet’s Gleaners

You can buy Leftovers: A History of Food Waste & Preservation at your usual bookshops. Find out more about my research at, and join me @historyeats on Instagram for daily insights into the wonderful world of food history! 

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