Reducing food waste shouldn’t reinforce food poverty stigma

When people are confronted with the enormous problem of food waste in society, one common initial idea is that it should just be collected and given to ‘the poor.’ I remember speaking with a girl in France who was arguing very passionately that the wasted food from supermarkets and restaurants should go to homeless people (and she’s finally getting her wish). However, when I asked if she herself  would like to eat that food, she was less than enthused – but still felt that someone else ought to.

Of course it may be very well meaning to want to see someone benefit from the waste,  but this is problematic because it ignores strategies higher up in the waste hierarchy, namely reducing food waste (then you can use all your saved money to help someone out). It also feels pretty condescending. Who are ‘the poor’? Just because they are in some way disadvantaged, should they be expected to eat what you or someone else has deemed ‘garbage’?  Well maybe ‘one man’s trash is another’s treasure’ and ‘beggars can’t be choosers,’ but personally I hope there are approaches that can maintain the recipients’ dignity and perhaps offer a bit more choice.

This isn’t an area with easy solutions, although as mentioned one option might be to waste less and use your saved money for donations which give people more power to choose, or food banks the ability to buy what is actually needed. However, even with changed habits at home, businesses are still going to have food that for one reason or another is edible but not salable. How can we de-stigmatize this food?  I know from my experience that a lot of the food that comes out the back doors of stores and restaurants is totally edible, so why shouldn’t it go to fill the failures in our food system? Yet things start to get a bit messed up when we start mixing a waste hierarchy with a social hierarchy.  The rich eat the organic filet, the lower middle-class the chicken nuggets, and then anyone below that can eat the leftovers and garbage from the above categories, and no need to ask them – they should just be grateful.  Umm no. Yet while not that simple or explicit, sometimes it feels that this is how we think food waste should be handled. And this model is clearly not that good for the disempowered people who are given food which, however delicious, was perceived as unfit for others yet good enough for them. So how do we challenge these structures? One way is for ritzy restaurants start serving ‘garbage’ food like monk fish heads, or for food rescue organizations open restaurants or catering companies and serve waste food back to a variety of people. This flips the ideas of who should be eating donated or  ‘waste’ food on its head. Rude Food in Sweden serves up delicious meals that are 90% rescued, and it’s not a homeless shelter or inner city feeding program: it’s a catering company.  Food Cycle in the UK  serves meals of rescued food to people who are food insecure or at risk of social isolation, but they also offer a catering service which then helps employ people and fund other programs.I see this sort of use of food waste as posing a greater challenge to the current system, challenging the idea of who should  be eating rescued food, showing that it is good enough for everyone. This is an even more shocking (and hopefully behaviour-changing) idea.


So what am I trying to say with this uncharacteristically long post? I haven’t solved this, I am confronted with this issue all the time, but I hope to think a bit more critically about equality and dignity when it comes to food and other donations. How can I treat people with the respect that they deserve, to maintain their rights to dignity and choice while doing my part to create a more food secure and waste-less society? Food waste and food poverty shouldn’t co-exist, but food donations are hardly a panacea either.