Food waste versus hunger

A number of my (P) Facebook friends (well, and myself too) like to share idyllic pictures of food consumed in the company of our loved ones. Many of us have some superficial interest in the origin and means of processing the food we consume. We like to see “cage-free” labels or know that the products are local. Still, in the United States, about ten percent of products come from the farmer’s market, and ninety percent come from outside of local communities \citep{fast}. About half of the consumable food in the United States is thrown away, and wasted food is the single largest component of American landfills. The flip side of the coin is that one in seven Americans experience hunger, and during the coronavirus pandemic, that number became one on six (so more than fifty million Americans lack food security in 2020). Brenda Ann Kenneally \citep{brenda20}, a photojournalist documented by the food insecure lives of millions in several moving and difficult-to forget photos.

It is easy to waste, isn’t it? It would be difficult to deny that a typical source of food waste is “overbuying.” Not just because we forget about our home reserves but also because we simply misjudge our needs—we get more than we need or have run out of. Or we just change our minds as picky people: What we liked in the store and put in our shopping basket no longer appeals to us at home, and we throw it out.

We waste in a variety of ways: We often buy food when there is still enough in the fridge because we just forgot about it. For example, we might not know that we have it because we store it irregularly. There are a lot of packages lurking on top of each other in our pantries, so a warranty date can easily escape attention. A lot of recently expired food in unopened packaging lands in the trash every day. Everyone is afraid of salmonella and its immediate consequences, but the long-term consequences of food waste are more difficult to see. But irregular, less-than-thorough cleaning of the refrigerator can also ruin food prematurely.

Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a “Clean Plate” campaign against food waste \citep{bbc20}. Statistics suggest that at least 17 million tons of food went to waste in China annually in the last several years \citep{marchisio20}. We have yet to see the results of the Chinese attempt, which aims to establish a social environment where waste is shameful. More precisely, waste is not only shameful, but the lack of appropriate recycling of food waste is also penalized by the newly introduced social credit rating system.

In India, 25% of the freshwater used to produce food is ultimately wasted, even as millions of people still lack access to drinking water. Big weddings and huge parties are big contributors to Indian food wastage. There is a chronic imbalance of food distribution.

Why, why, and why? If individually we have a bad conscience about behaving this way, why do we have huge quantities of food waste in very different parts of the world? First of all, whatever we say after paying in the supermarket, food is still cheap. Second, we don’t buy “ugly” foods. We often only like to buy produce that has aesthetic quality. Manicured food is identified with high-standard technology and food safety. As we are able to make excellent pictures with our cell phones, the so-called “camera cuisine” influences what we order to eat. There is a new profession, food stylist, who prepares photogenic food for photography, video, or film. We, shoppers, don’t really buy imperfect-looking fruits and vegetables. On the other side, crooked produces are not even located by grocers on the shelves—they are thrown out before they make it to the store. This is unreasonable since biologically, the flavor of the food is more important than appearance. But data show that waste and hunger were rising on parallel tracks. It is not painless to accept this contradiction.

Once again: fresh goods are beautiful, less fresh—withered, browned—are ugly. ”We eat with our eyes”. The color and fragrance (turbocharged with state-of-the-art technology during production), the texture, the shape, and the packaging of the product all affect our most important senses: Our eyes. It is estimated that we get eighty percent of the information from the outside world with our eyes, so there is a stake in the competition to be beautiful. A lot of goods are finished works of art: Artists, scientists design every detail, even the overall effect. In countless cases, we throw the unsightly in the trash: “It may still be good, but I won’t eat it anymore.”

While it is easy to write that our culinary culture should be subject to rethinking and repair, some elementary steps have been made for a long time. Probably people back to antiquity felt some moral obligation to help hungry individuals eat. The soup kitchen, as an institution, emerged at the end of the 18th century. While the industrial revolution created an increase in overall prosperity, it also exacerbated inequality. The traditional life of many poor people was disrupted, and the number of hungry people increased. Sir Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford, is credited as an early champion of hunger relief and established the first modern soup kitchen. The concept became extensive in the United States during the Great Depression. The infamous gangster labeled “Public Enemy Number One,” Al Capone, opened a soup kitchen that “served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to an average of 2,200 Chicagoans every day”\citep{klein19}.

Modern food banks are non-profit organizations and are instrumental in helping those people who cannot afford to purchase sufficient food. The modern era of food banks started in 1967, when St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance was founded in Phoenix, Arizona, by John van Hengel, who later founded the organization Feeding America to popularize the concept of food banks throughout the whole country and actually the world. At that time, both politicians and the media drew attention to the issue of hunger and led to the introduction of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), generally referred to as the food stamp program. Food insecurity soared during the pandemic, and as food banks rely on personal donations, these contributions shrink during difficult times.

There are now companies like Imperfect Foods and Misfit Market, which purchase and deliver cosmetically challenged produce to consumers. I (P) clicked on the website of Imperfect Foods after their ad appeared on my Facebook page, and soon we became enthusiastic Imperfectionists. We discussed the food waste problem over dinner in my house (Hungarian goulash was served and consumed) with our neighbor, a professor of sociology/anthropology. She feels that while Imperfect Food is an appealing initiative, it may create competition with food banks, which have previously been able to acquire imperfect foods and provide them to those who need it.

Traditional housewives have always been creative in secondary processing. Potato soup (the Central European version is different from what we have in the United States or Japan) and leftovers can be potato souffle, and tomato salad could be converted into bruschetta or gazpacho. We can transform and improve leftovers to make our diet varied, and most importantly, so as not to throw away so many residues. It is also recycling, although not industrial, but individual and more creative. Last but not least, it is a real innovative opportunity for ourselves.

The title of a tale by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen is “The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf.” In this story, the little woman throws the loaf she is supposed to give to her poor family on the ground in front of her to step on it to keep her slippers clean from the mud. Today, entire streets could be “paved” with bites thrown in the trash for various reasons. And not only with bread, but also with cold cuts, cheeses, packaged sauces, and other delicacies. We are becoming less consistent about buying and storing food, and the issue of recycling is hardly yet to come.

Throwing away food goes far beyond the specific loss of food or money. It involves wasted animal feed, the spraying of plants, the cost of fuel and energy for production and transport, and the cost of storage, all of which add up to tangible losses for the consumer. Few are aware of this, as then we would have to face the hard-to-digest fact that we regularly harm ourselves. Over-consumption and overproduction can eventually become a trap for each other: Could it have become our subconscious need to throw out a personalized dose? That would be the abundance—does that make us feel wealthy or gourmet?

We arrived at a transition: A few years ago, there was still a common phrase in the recipe sections of magazines: Just eat and cook completely intact fruits and vegetables! cooking! Today, due to the impact of what might be called bio-lifestyle, we read this less often, and the “ecological approach” also overwrites the old advice. We can boldly cut a little bump out of the otherwise flawless pieces instead of throwing it all in the trash. One little strategic suggestion from Zsuzsa: Next time buy a smaller fridge! Less food will be ruined because you will have less space!

Environmentalists, business owners, and information technologists implement new methods of fighting against food waste. Some restaurants, as Rhodora in Brooklyn operates, are based on a no-waste moral principle. Here are a number of applications worldwide aimed at reducing food waste \citep{roy19}: \emph{Karma} helps us to discover the cheaper offer of restaurants and bars near us at the end of the day. Farmdrop connects with local farmers so our footprint for buying and consuming will be smaller. With Olio’s support, we can find partners nearby to whom we can hand over our leftovers. Foodcloud is a partner of supermarkets: Unsold food reaches charity organizations and those in need. \emph{Giki} shows how ethical the distributor is and how sustainable it is to operate.

Michelin recently introduced a new distinction, the Green Star, to award restaurants that prove to be successful at reducing waste, preserving natural resources, and protecting endangered species. Thirteen Japanese restaurants have been awarded \citep{michelin21} in Kyoto, Tokyo, and Osaka. (It is interesting that in Tokyo mostly French restaurants have received the award, while in Kyoto, traditional Japanese ones have been granted.)

We have now more and more opportunities to improve the process of waste reduction. Every little step might imply significant change, every gram of food that is not thrown away leads to an increase in our own financial situation and sustainability. If we step on this path and start paying attention to the shelves of the fridge, the warranty on the packaging, the contents of the pantry, we can experience a remarkable transformation in just a few weeks or maybe even in a few days. Our first feeling might be that we are sorry to throw away the cake that has not yet been eaten, but we leave in the evening, so we look for someone among the neighbors to whom we can offer the leftovers. The second feeling is creativity: Yes, the apple is no longer as tight and red as it was when we bought it five days ago, but next to the meat, the steamed apple will be perfect.

As we worked on this chapter, we were happy to see that “The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2020 to the World Food Programme (WFP) for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

We, the society, are in the process of rethinking the whole food system we have. How we produce, distribute and consume food. The stakes are our own health, the environment, the climate and, and a healthier (both in physical and social sense) society.

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