Unequal access to food is a problem. And so is food waste. That’s why two women in the UK, Tessa Clarke and Saasha Celestial-One, started the food sharing app OLIO.

The OLIO website has some stark information about food waste. Worldwide, we use an area larger than China to grow food that’s never eaten. And if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. But while the problem is global, we can chip away at it locally.

How does OLIO work?

Just download the free app and make an account. It’s a very straightforward process – much easier than setting up an eBay or an Amazon account. One of the refreshing things about OLIO is that it is a trust-based system. There’s no vetting process, no fees and no means testing: it’s easy to join up and it makes no difference whether you want to give away food and household items or pick up some useful stuff. Or a bit of both.

Once you’re registered, the app will connect you with people in your area. You can choose a pick-up radius (in increments from 0.6 miles to 16 miles) and will be able to see everything that’s available.

All food and household goods are free.

OLIO food listings

What can you list?

There are two categories: food and non-food items.

The rule is that any food you list should be something that’s “good enough for you” to eat. That’s it. In my area at the moment, people are giving away items including bags of coffee, bread, pastries, cereals, fennel and milk.

So, if you realise that you've bought too much veg, or are never going to get around to those tins of soup in the back of your cupboard, you can help someone else out and claw back a bit of kitchen space.

The same goes for household items that may be going unused. In terms of non-food items, there are books, clothes, appliances, bric-a-brac and kitchenware available, with most items being snapped up quickly. OLIO is a dream for people who want to declutter.

Supermarket and restaurant food

Towards the end of the day, you may also find unsold food from local businesses listed. In my area, Tesco and Pret a Manger take part, which means that there are often bread and cakes, sandwiches and salads to be had.

The food is collected from the shops and distributed by OLIO’s volunteer “Food Waste Heroes”. If you want to offer more structured help to your community, you can apply to become a Food Waste Hero. There are more volunteer roles as well, such as leafleting, promoting and signing up local businesses to give away unsold food.

How does the listing process work?

If you have an item to list, just snap a picture, write a brief description and upload it. It’ll immediately appear on the listings page.

If you see an item you want, click on the “Request this” button and you’ll be able to send a message to the person who listed it. They may have specific times when you can go and collect it. If they accept your request, you arrange a time and place to meet.

If it’s a popular item, the lister may get more one request, so you may not be lucky every time but there are always food and household items available.

OLIO app pages

The golden rule

If there’s one rule that’s taken seriously on OLIO, it’s that if you request an item and arrange a pick-up time, you need to show up.

OLIO exists to cut down food waste, so only ask for items you know you’ll be able to collect. People who fail to arrive when they have promised to may be reported and banned.

Giving it a test run

Once I made an account, I immediately listed a few household items I’d set aside for friends. (Sorry friends, but it looks like I won’t be seeing you for a while…) Within a minute or two, I had several requests. There’s an active community of OLIO users in this part of London – other areas may be more or less busy. I picked recipients on a first-come, first-served basis and arranged times to meet.

I chose a well-known local pub as a meeting point: it’s close by, it saved me from giving out my address and I thought people would feel comfortable meeting in a public place. Other people choose to have items collected from their homes and a contactless pick-up can be arranged by leaving items outside.

Everyone I met arrived on time, was very friendly and afterwards, we swapped positive star ratings.

On the app’s forum, users occasionally share stories of people failing to arrive at the designated pick-up time, or taking items left out for others. But these stories are relatively rare and people are overwhelmingly kind and helpful. Besides, since the point of the app is to stop waste and share, there isn’t really much room to exploit the system.

The app

The app itself is well designed and easy to use. Each user has a profile page with a star rating and stats.

Then there are community areas. As well as the “Free” section, there’s a “Made” area, where people can buy and sell homemade food and craft items. In my area, this means pasta kits, pastries, cakes, moussaka, curries and more, all sold for prices from £3 for a portion of food to £50 for a raw vegan cake. The craft section has paintings, jewellery, soap and crochet work.

OLIO Made and Forum sections

If you have questions, the Forum is the place to go. It has separate categories for recipes, tips, app Q&As, events and more.

There's also space for people to post requesting things they need: for craft projects, for new babies or to replace appliances that have broken down.

Get the OLIO app

Now, more than ever, we’re depending on our local communities. The pandemic has destabilised people financially and it seems as though every day there are stories in the media about high demand for food banks and schoolchildren going hungry. If you want to help, it’s sometimes difficult to see how you can make a difference. The answer could be by acting locally.

OLIO is available for iOS and Android. It is, of course, totally free to download and use. If you want to cut down on food waste, share and give unused items to someone who'll use them, it's a brilliant resource. Give it a go. You can find out more on the OLIO website.

For more tips on cutting down waste in your kitchen, check out our articles on how long kitchen cupboard staples should last and how to get the most from your freezer