Thomson Reuters Foundation

The young Roma woman gingerly touched the oranges and cabbages, bright, fresh and neatly stacked in crates. Francesco Fanoli, an anthropologist, insisted they were hers to take - for free.

With a toddler playing in a nearby pram and more mouths to feed at home, the mother took the cache gratefully, telling Mr Fanoli she could not find any work without an identity card.

Next up: a range of breads from Viola de Andrade Piroli, a pilates teacher who had just nipped into a nearby shop.

The loaves were gratefully received.

Then moments later, 91-year-old Maria Roccatelli turned up - wrapped in a big green jacket and thick scarf to keep out the winter cold, pushed by her son in a wheelchair.

They picked up a pineapple, oranges, beans, chicory and cauliflowers and filled two large plastic bags. This should help see them through the week, Ms Roccatelli, who lives in a nearby fourth-floor apartment, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A regular now, Ms Roccatelli learnt of the project from a stranger on the street. "(She) told me, "Go there, they give poor people things," so I came," she said. "Everything helps."

Alberone Market1

Fresh vegetables at the Alberone Market in Rome, where a group of volunteers are rescuing unsold food and distributing them for free. PICTURE: Thin Lei Win/Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Since September, Mr Fanoli and Ms de Andrade Piroli have spent Saturday afternoons at the Alberone open-air market, a few metro stops from Rome's tourist attractions, cajoling shop keepers to hand over unsold food and help the hungry.

Once the market closes, they put up a cardboard box with a handwritten sign, "raccolta e distribuzione gratis" ("free collection and distribution") and give it all away.

In a nation proud of its produce and with legendary food markets, the initiative is a ground breaker, helping the needy and cutting waste.

Food is a cultural cornerstone in Italy yet the most recent government survey of 400 families showed each one wastes the equivalent of 85 kilograms of food, worth a combined €8.5 billion a year. Earlier figures have put food waste as high as 145 kilograms per family, at a cost of €16 billion.

In 2016, Italy passed a law to limit food waste, making it easier to donate unsold food.

It is still early to crunch numbers but the signs are good, said Roberto Moncalvo, president of the Italian agricultural association Coldiretti.

"In 2017, six out of 10 people we interviewed said they have reduced food waste, a sign that families are now aware of this issue," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Still, much remains to be done.

"At the beginning we were collecting between 30 to 50 kilos. Then it started to grow. Now we are on an average of 130, 150 kilos every Saturday."

- Viola de Andrade Piroli

Most of the Alberone Market covers just one short street, but that Saturday, Mr Fanoli and Ms de Andrade Piroli collected 99 kilograms of food that would likely have gone to rot otherwise.

"At the beginning we were collecting between 30 to 50 kilos. Then it started to grow. Now we are on an average of 130, 150 kilos every Saturday," said Ms de Andrade Piroli.

Globally, one third of all food produced, worth nearly $US1 trillion, is wasted every year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Critics say food waste is not only unethical in a world of rising hunger but environmentally destructive.

Most waste happens in the home but market schemes raise awareness, said Paolo Hutter, who runs a non-governmental organisation, Eco dalle Città.

His organisation recruited asylum seekers from sub-Saharan and north Africa to collect, recycle and distribute unsold foods at Porta Palazzo, Europe's largest open-air market, situated in the northern Italian city of Turin.

This was to foster better relationships between communities and to "show African volunteers doing something useful for poor people," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Alberone market2

Another image from the Alberone Market in Rome. PICTURE: Thin Lei Win/Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Migration is a hot-button issue in Italy, with political parties taking a hard line against immigrants ahead of national elections on 4th March.

The project in Turin, supported by Novamont, an Italian biochemical company, now collects about 400 kilograms of unsold products every day. It was the inspiration for the Rome market initiative and Mr Hutter advised the volunteers who now staff it.

They are struggling to find private sector partners that could help expand the project, be it collecting more often at Alberone Market or starting similar projects in other venues.

For now, working out of pocket and in their own time, Ms de Andrade Piroli and Mr Fanoli are thankful to the stall holders who have embraced their project, like Roberta Cantalini, a third-generation fruit and vegetable vendor.

"For me, the initiative is useful…" the 48-year-old said.

"It is good to help people, but sometimes, there are people who don't need it, who pick up the free food."

Half the shops at the market now support the project, said Ms de Andrade Piroli, who spent days speaking to shop owners to allay fears that their livelihoods were at stake.

That January afternoon, a dozen or so people came to pick up the food, including Ludmilla, a 60-year-old Moldovan who does multiple domestic jobs.

She saves about 10 euros a week this way, Ludmilla said, as she filled her bags with vegetables for two elderly neighbours.

"The majority of those who come are people in need. It's not up to us to judge," said Ms de Andrade Piroli.