The house I grew up in was one that seldom wasted food. Not because my parents were particularly militant (I’m not sure I ever finished everything on my plate, despite consistent protestation from them both. Till this day I have a particular habit of always leaving at least one bite’s worth at dinner – weird), but we just seemed to eat things before they began to turn. This was due to a few factors I think. One, my mum cooked good, tasty food despite working full time (well done, mum). And despite me, and to a lesser degree my brother, poo-pooing whatever was on the menu that night, we generally had a decent portion. My father, the human hoover, also did his part. Secondly, we were ‘leftover’ people. Despite being a family of four, my mother always seemed to make enough to feed around six. For us, this worked well because whatever she made transferred happily to lunch or dinner the next day*. The third factor, which is partly conjecture as I can’t quite remember nor would I have really noticed as a child, but I presume my mother was adept at utilising whatever was in the fridge or pantry which teetered on the precipice of its use-by date. The only thing I remember that went off with any regularity was fruit. My mother always, rather optimistically, kept a (mostly) full fruit bowl and whenever I complained of wanting a snack she would enthusiastically direct me to the ample fruit bowl. I, of course, would pout and whiningly proclaim: “I don’t want fruuuuuuit! Fruit’s boooooooring….“.
Having said that, the concept of food wastage wasn’t really one that entered into my domestic-ethical nexus until quite recently; obviously I always had an awareness of it, in that I knew waste was bad and one should try to avoid it. Toddlers are notorious food wasters and unfortunately, reasoning with them about why it’s important to finish what’s on one’s plate can be tricky. It was the transition of my daughter from congenial baby to toddler that really began to bring realities of wastage very starkly into view (that and Christmas). Finally… I think to myself as she accepts mouthful after mouthful of grilled chicken; something she’ll eat other than peas! Only to find she’s cruelly amassing the plateful of food in her mouth in order to spew it all out sixty seconds later with a look of abject disgust wiped across her face. “NOOOOO! Think of all those starving children whose parents can’t even afford to give them dinner!” I hear myself implore idiotically, while at the same time conceding yet another galling defeat. The worst part of it being that I will inevitably have made a whole vat of whatever it is she’s just rejected and will of course, be throwing it in the bin.
I hate food wastage, more so now than ever. Every time I clear out the fridge and toss container after container of expired food into the bin I think of all those families who have to rely on food banks full of nutritionally lacking canned goods, an increasing self-loathing pervades my very being. If I am at the point where I’m constantly turfing out food, then this family is purchasing far more than it needs.
Sadly, shops gear us towards this kind of hyper-consumption. And in times of austerity, we cannot help but gravitate towards those who would give us more for less. Case in point, the disgusting asparagus you see above. Only in the market for one bunch of asparagus, I opted for two – it seemed silly not to take the second when one bunch cost £2 but you could get 2 for £2.50. But it’s a hollow victory: I spent 50p more on something I didn’t need and it ended up rotting in the fridge.
Having subsequently read the report on Global Food by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, my self-directed repugnance has not only been enhanced, but has also amplified to include the rest of the western world. Some sobering findings include (for the UK), around 70 million tonnes of food is thrown away in homes every year, costing the average household about £480; and 30 per cent of the country’s vegetable crops are not harvested each year as the result of failure to meet consumer (aesthetic) standards. One particularly point of note read:
“In mature, developed economies such as the UK and USA, the purchasing policies for fresh produce operated by the major supermarkets actively encourage waste in the field. IN this regard, rather than entering into supply contracts with farmers, these large-scale purchasers procure produce through ‘supply agreements’ where the benefits are weighted in favour of the buyer. Penalties are imposed for failure to deliver agreed quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables during the year, which encourages farmers to grow more crop than they need as a form of insurance against poor weather and other factors that may reduce the yield.”
We’re all familiar with this story. Big supermarkets applying pressure to the agricultural sector in order to drive down prices to the potential detriment of many producers. This is dynamic is particularly problematic in developing countries, where land previously used for the rearing of diverse crops to feed the local population is then dedicated to the harvesting of monocrops to feed international markets. When large proportions of those crops fail to be harvested (for reasons mentioned above), the perverse situation arises where food is laid to waste while local populations starve.
It’s not as if this information is particularly new, it’s just that many don’t seem to make the correlation between what they throw out and the images of landfill and starving children they see on television. When a society is in a state of such hyper-consumption that it becomes cheaper for households to throw food away than purchase what they actually need, something has gone horribly wrong.
With the weight of these slow realisations sloshing around in my head, my subconscious responses to the issue of food wastage are finding new and interesting manifestations. For one, I find myself absent-mindedly eating everything my daughter doesn’t finish, including soggy, half-mauled biscuits, stale, oxidised pieces of cut-up apple and most inelegantly, what falls on the floor or on her clothes, picking it off her like some sort of grooming maternal chimp. I cannot decide whether this is virtuous or just revolting behaviour at an all new low. Regardless, I’m pleased with the increased cognitive energy being channelled toward my consumption patterns; lets hope my ethics stay the distance.
*I really ought to provide the following caveat: my father ate the leftovers. I ate them, depending on what they were. Pasta yes; reheated meat, not so much. To this day, I can be a little picky with leftovers but necessity has forced me to alter my behaviour – to an extent.
Image from Fresh Fruit Portal