Milly d'Escrivan has shed 4.5kg (9.9lbs) this week, making her the biggest "loser" in her Cambridgeshire group. Ms d'Escrivan and nine other young mothers have lost more than 40kg (6.3 stone) between them over the past four months. Like thousands of others around the country who are trying to shed the pounds, they meet regularly to offer each other moral support and to swap recipes and tips. Unlike many other women, however, they are watching their waste, not their weight.
They are part of an innovative scheme helping women to cut their food waste and shopping bills in half – using simple, old-fashioned home economics. If their success were repeated nationwide, the scheme could save the UK 2 million tons of wasted food a year – and £5bn.
The Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap), the Government's packaging waste agency, has teamed up with the National Federation of Women's Institutes to create 10 "Love Food" groups, teaching women how to waste less, be more efficient cooks and to cut shopping bills – with the aim of reducing the 6.7 million tons of food the UK wastes every year.
"We throw away a third of the food we buy in the UK, so to cut back that waste by 50 per cent is outstanding," said Julia Falcon, a campaign manager for Wrap. "We can see that groups who decide to share their experiences with each other, and tackle this problem together, work extremely well."
The women organised groups in Cambridgeshire, Gloucestershire, Essex, Northamptonshire, North Yorkshire, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Kent, West Sussex and Wiltshire. They held monthly meetings to discuss food storage, shopping, meal planning and preservation – with spectacular results. Their households reduced waste from an average 4.7kg (10.4lbs) a week to 2.2kg (4.9lbs) a week.
"We'd like others to try something similar in their own home town, and so we are producing a step-by-step guide which should help other groups wishing to follow suit," Ms Falcon said.
Several local authorities are looking into starting similar schemes, with the help of a "how to" guide published by Wrap. A Women's Institute workbook also accompanied the project, and is available online. The Love Food Champions report will be published tomorrow by Wrap.
"Members of the WI are activists embedded in local communities," said Fay Mansell, chair of the Women's Institute. "We have lots of chat from politicians and well-meaning groups, but WI members are doers. They are willing to alter their own behaviour and don't lecture or patronise – people don't want to be talked down to."
She added: "Not wasting food is a traditional skill that has been lost in recent years, and we are bringing it into a modern context."
Participants in the study reported that they had gained confidence in their ability to produce meals from basic ingredients, had eaten a healthier diet due to advance planning, while some had begun to grow their own fruit and vegetables.
The scheme appears to have fulfilled many of the aims of the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food TV series. This aimed to teach every adult in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, how to cook healthy food, but sparked a backlash amid accusations that he was patronising the working-class locals.
The project has also highlighted the environmental impact of food waste. The energy involved in producing, storing and transporting wasted food is such that Wrap estimates that the country's food waste generates 18 tons of carbon dioxide a year – the same as a fifth of the cars on the road. Much of the food thrown out ends up in landfill, where it emits methane, a damaging greenhouse gas.
"The Women's Institute has been campaigning on green issues since 2005, and this is an extension of that," Ms Mansell said. "Reducing food waste is a win-win situation for consumers – you can reduce your food bills and help the planet. We have shown that you can reduce your food waste by half. Imagine the impact we can make if everyone reduces food waste by half."
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics last week suggest that shoppers may already be trying to waste less food, with food sales in Britain now falling for the first time in 20 years.
The Wrap scheme is backed by Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who recently highlighted the pressures that rising prices and increasing demand are placing on UK food supplies. "Food belongs on our plates and not in the bin," he said. "This initiative shows that with a bit of ingenuity and a willingness to share ideas, food waste can be cut to an absolute minimum – putting money back in people's pockets and diverting damaging food waste from landfill."
List-maker: 'My bill went from £800 to £400'
"A lady from the Women's Institute came into my school and asked if I wanted to take part," says Milly d'Escrivan, 42, a teacher. "I met up with other women once a month in a church hall, when we would discuss whether or not you make lists before you go shopping, how much food you waste, these sorts of things. Some of the ideas we used were in the workbook, and some were just other people's thoughts.
"I have four teenage girls, so it was difficult to cook something that they all wanted to eat, and not waste food. Getting myself organised, writing down what I need before going to the shops, and making sure I don't buy anything else massively helped. I started in the Easter holidays, when I would go to the shops every day. My shopping bill was £800 a month, and now I have cut it down to £400. That is £100 a week I'm saving! Housewives with big families have a tendency to overbuy I think. It is a habit.
"There are lots of leftover-recipes – a pseudo chilli con carne is our favourite. We have also started having a leftover day once a week, where we just eat what is left in the fridge. Often it means that we're all having something different for dinner that night – it's a mish-mash meal. The most important thing is definitely planning your meals."
Green convert: 'I'm one of those over-the-top shoppers who buys stuff they don't need'
"When I first joined I wasn't big on issues like recycling or wasting food – I wasn't into green issues," says full-time mother Adrienne Grant, 35, pictured left with a fellow campaign member. "I'm one of those over-the-top shoppers who goes shopping when they are hungry, doesn't plan meals, buys lots of stuff they don't need and then half goes in the bin. I didn't feel guilty about it, either. I just hadn't thought about the impact of it at all.
"When I heard that we waste X tons a year in the UK, I was so shocked. I didn't think about the financial implications of wasting so much food, but throughout the sessions I became more aware. I still don't recycle as much as I should, but I'm much better.
"We had to set goals at the end of every week, with a target of something to improve on – like checking my cupboards to make sure I'm not buying something I already have. There was definitely a social element, but it is much deeper than a dieting club, and I was surprised at how on-task we stayed– tackling issues like waste is very grounding.
"It's like the Jamie Oliver thing of passing on knowledge: I'm teaching the kids how to do it, and we'll definitely carry on with it."
Food waste by numbers
6.7m tons of food are thrown away every year in the UK
1/3 of the food we buy ends up in the bin
18m tons of CO2 is produced by this waste
£10bn worth of food is wasted
£4bn of wasted food is caused by cooking more than is needed
£6bn of wasted food is left to go off
£400 a year, on average, is wasted by each UK household
£5bn & 2m tons of food could be saved by following the Wrap programme