Issue 11

food saver


Interview with Günes Seyfarth

Photos by Thomas Mandl Words by Sarah Dorkenwald

Shaerethe new space for a sharing culture

Hello, I’m Günes, I’ve been a food saver for eight years, and four years ago I developed a catering concept where food saved from being thrown away is processed into good meals and served up. This sentence launched Günes Seyfarth’s new startup project, Shaere. She won a pitch for interim use of a former corporate building in the heart of Neuperlach, Munich, for a five-year period. The eco-entrepreneur now has over 40,000 square metres of space, including large-scale canteen facilities, at her disposal, and the plan of transforming standard office and conference spaces into a hub for encounter and innovation. Günes Seyfarth uses the canteen for Community Kitchen, a business model founded by herself and Judith Stiegelmayr to supply daycare centres, schools and companies with meals comprising over 90 per cent saved foods. The food they rescue from landfill is also bottled or otherwise preserved for sale to retailers. A new feature is the restaurant in the new premises, open to all; anyone without the funds to pay can help out in the kitchens and earn their own food. A successful example of a circular econ-omyimitators welcome!

But Günes wants more. A core team of 12 staff with 120 volunteers are transforming the building. Right from the entrance lobby, there is an immediate feeling that the project is intended as the anti­thesis of the normal, conventional and known. The rooms are quickly being filled with donated furniture, the walls painted in bright colours. There is activity everywhere, with a sense of upheaval and new beginnings in the air, of makerhood. Many strands are coming together; everyone is welcome, the ­secret is all in the mix. The vision is to establish Shaere as a low-threshold centre of creativity where different areas of society can rub shoulders, encounter and get to know each other, and learn from each other. This meeting of all social levels, young and old, to share food, say, but also ideas, expertise or time, may sooner or later usher in a new form of business management in which life skills and life economy are writ large. Shaere is a prototype incubator for business ideas born of personal motivation, which are then taken up and developed as collaborations. Life and work can be reshaped to be more self-determined, flexible, local, colourful and resilient. The lesson taught by Shaere is the courage to make mistakes and to keep getting up, again and again, until it works. And space is imperative for this to happen.

GÜNES SEYFARTH

Startups are deep in Günes Seyfarth’s DNA, driven by her philosophy of  “fall in love with the problem, not your solution”. The business administration graduate and mother of three sons responded to the lack of childcare places which was directly impacting her life by setting up a crèche and then a children’s daycare group. In 2016 she added Mamikreisel, an organisation for collecting and distributing second-hand children’s items, while 2019 saw the advent of Fruitiverse, a brand of fruit gummies made from 100 per cent fresh organic fruit. In addition, Günes Seyfarth set up her own startup consulting agency in 2017. But for the past eight years she has found her purpose in combating food waste by rescuing food from landfill; her activities in this area have included a food truck campaign where dishes made from rescued foods were handed out free over five days at five different locations in Munich. This year Günes Seyfarth and Judith Stiegelmayr set up Com-Kit Food GmbH, based at Shaere–itself a startup project launched by Günes.

Cities and municipalities have already understood that urban space needs to evolve further, away from mere areas to live, consume or work and towards social, multi-layered, vibrant and sustainable spaces for living which embrace a cross-section of society and empower people to act independently within a sharing culture. I don’t tell people, ‘This is what’s here’; I ask, ‘What do you need?’ says Günes in explanation of her approach, with a radiant smile. She exudes an energy and zest for action that are infectious. But Günes is very far from naïve; a business administration graduate, she is aware of how cost-effectiveness and an entrepreneurial mindset are essential to drive a project on this scale. We asked her how it all works, what motivates her and what stops her from failing

You are a startup company consultant with several startups of your own under your belt. How did it all start?

 

G

S

It all started with problems: problems I had, and problems I saw around me. I’ve come to love problems because they’re the stepping-stone to solutions. In 2009 I was pregnant and Munich had a shortfall of 5000 daycare places—and still does. So I thought, before I started to send out a stack of applications with all the nail-biting uncertainty that would involve, why didn’t I just do it ­myself? Already a business administration graduate and a qualified dance teacher, I threw myself into the daycare business and after ten months of running around like mad, finally set up the daycare facility with other parents. After I got my next business idea off the ground in 2012, more and more people started coming to ask my advice. I decided to build it into my portfolio of expertise and become a startup consultant.

Food waste is certainly a really big problem; so much food gets thrown away even though it is still edible. But you found a solution to that one, too. Where did you get the idea of becoming a food saver?

 

G

S

I’ve been a food saver for nine years. I’ve tackled the subject in depth and immersed myself in it, physically, emotionally and mentally. Over those nine years the idea began to take up more and more of my life as it became increasingly important for me, but it was interesting to see how alien it still is for many people. Food waste still hasn’t made it into the mainstream, even though reducing food waste is third on the list of the most effective actions we can take to protect the global climate.

What are the factors that come together to cause food waste?

 

G

S

You have to realise that food waste occurs constantly throughout the entire food chain, from production to distribution and consumption. At home, we can all keep an eye on how much we cook and what’s left over afterwards—and hopefully eat it the next day or use it up in some other way. But farmers have leftovers too; they plough them back into the fields to make humus. And food processing factories, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, canteens and events all generate food waste as well. Half of all foodstuffs produced worldwide are simply thrown away. Scale that up to global level, and it’s clearly an absolute catastrophe. Even in a city like Munich, every single citizen throws away 118 grams of still-edible food per day. Now that might not sound like very much, but it all adds up to 168,000 kilos of food that lands in the bin. Every day. If that figure sounds daunting, the great thing is that you can save the world with 118 grams. What I like is being able to tell everyone that they can change the world by not throwing away their tiny quantity of food.

Part of why we end up throwing so much away is associated with our desires and our habits. What needs to change there?

 

G

S

In the talks I give, I always say that food waste is a symptom of our society. It says so much about how we deal with things and what we want for ourselves. For example, we want the supermarket shelves to be perpetually full. But think about what happens at store closing time on Saturday evening—and in Germany, supermarkets are closed all day Sunday. What happens to all those fresh rolls, all those loaves of bread? What happens to all that fruit, those berries that are already on the turn? We need to understand that this perpetual availability is a problem. In addition, many foods are now sold ready processed. It’s so practical. Our parents and grandparents never had that; they still cut stuff up themselves at home. Today I only need to peel open a package to have sushi, or whatever else I want. Fruit and vegetables in advertisements are always so perfect, glossy and appetising. But they don’t look like that on the shelves, so they don’t sell as well. Food waste is also a result of our perception of normality. If I have a product with a sell-by date, what does it say about me that I don’t trust the senses I was born with—sight, smell, taste—but throw the product away unopened instead? What does that say about my confidence in my own abilities? We can also see this in other areas, like politics; people put their trust in solutions that sound easy and quick. So I see food waste as a topic of far, far broader significance than just the idea of throwing stuff away.

What’s your solution to the problem?

 

G

S

Part of my solution is to talk a lot about it and provide practical examples. People might not want to eat a banana when the skin goes brown; but if I peel the banana and make it into banana bread, nobody cares any more whether the skin was brown or not. That’s exactly what we’re doing with Community Kitchen; we take food that falls through the gaps in Germany and use it to magic up delicious meals, sell them and serve them in our restaurant, but also supply them to retailers in bottled or preserved form.

To realise this idea, you joined forces with Judith Stiegelmayr to set up Community Kitchen. How do you handle the organisation?

 

G

S

Over the years, the concept of Community Kitchen started to come together in my mind as a solution. I asked Judith whether she’d like to join me in realising it, so we set up a company and divided the work up between us. As well as turning the food we save into delicious meals, I hold a Christmas Eve dinner every year, and this year will be no exception; on 24 December we’ll get together and eat side by side with people who want to join us. That could be anyone; there are no barriers. They could be older women who live alone on a tiny pension and often no longer have the money to be participatory members of society; they live a very lonely life and often have a poor diet. In the Community Kitchen we have a huge production area, but also a hospitality space around 1000 square metres in area. This is where we plan to set up a restaurant where people come and eat because they want to, not because they have to. Granny Erna can meet up with Granny Rita and spend the whole day knitting if she likes; they’re somewhere warm, they’re independent but in the company of other people, and they can just be. Tap water is always free here. We also distribute food donations. And people who help out in the kitchen as registered members will get a green card for free food and drink in the restaurant in return for their efforts. Maybe Granny Erna would like to give us the benefit of her years of experience and join us in chopping up the vegetables; then she can eat and drink here with Granny Rita. Granny Erna is our avatar. I’m so looking forward to the first Granny Erna coming through the doors. I plan to celebrate it!

It occurs to me is that by processing food that’s gone beyond its sell-by date you move into a grey area, and that’s a no-no if you aim to grow a reputable business. What does the law actually state on that point?

 

G

S

The law states that the last individual to issue a foodstuff, whether as a sale or not, takes over the liability for that food when it expires. That’s very interesting, because it naturally means that many chain retailers don’t sell expired food, or at least slash their prices, and that naturally leads to the belief that selling expired food is prohibited by law. But in fact, the law says the complete opposite; it is permitted, but we hold liability. We have the huge advantage that we open the foods—yoghurt, say—and examine them before we use them, which supermarkets obviously don’t do. We have the same liability as any other catering company, so our approach is that foods come in and are inspected by our trained chefs, and if they’re still edible they’re used, and if they’re no longer edible they’re disposed of. People often come up and ask how we manage to sell out-of-date food. I always reply, We’ve read the law.

So what kind of things are on your menu?

 

G

S

The only challenge we have is to save whatever can be saved, and that also inspires our creativity. It means we don’t use any standard recipes. We have to think about what we can make every day, depending on the kind of foods that are available. That’s exciting! But it also means that if we get enquiries about event catering we might be able to say whether the food will be sweet or savoury, but not specify whether it will involve apples, apricots or oranges.

Where do you source the food you process?

 

G

S

We have a huge processing and storage area, so everything at the start of the food chain—from farmers, food processing companies and wholesalers—is relevant for us. We’re talking palette goods here. Anything else mainly ends up at our food donation distribution point. This is a designated place where individuals can bring in or take away surplus food. Say someone’s going on holiday tomorrow and has two pints of milk in the fridge that won’t last until they return, they can bring them in to us for someone else to use. This also enables us to prevent food waste on a smaller, personal scale.

And does it work? Do people use it?

 

G

S

Yes, it works really well.

Community Kitchen has recently found a home in the former business premises of a major insurance company which has relocated. It’s an interesting combination—the building is tailored to the needs of a big corporation, but as its new inhabitants, you are opening it as a social hub for all. How did this opportunity come about?

 

G

S

I heard about a possibility of putting in an application to use the building for a socially based concept, but I didn’t know any more about it than the address. So off I marched to Neuperlach on a cold day during the pandemic, and we stood around outside. It was Friday afternoon and I was in a pretty grumpy mood. Looking back, I’m so glad I went. The potential new players were given some basic information about the building and the area and some details of the features, like the canteen facilities. That must have struck a chord with me. When we were called on to introduce ourselves, I’d intended to talk about how I’d founded a daycare centre and aimed to set up a school, and how educational ­equality was very important to me. What actually happened was that when I opened my mouth, the first sentence was, Hello, I’m Günes, I’ve been a food saver for eight years, and four years ago I developed a catering concept where food saved from being thrown away is processed into good meals and served up. And my mouth closed again. I was stunned, but the owner nodded approvingly. After that, things started moving; there were a couple of pitch meetings and now, suddenly, not even one year later, here we are doing all this. It’s an experiment for both sides, for the property management company and for me. I’m so grateful for the courage they’ve shown in deciding to use the building for a social project.

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