Raj Patel is research professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Nick Saul is President and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada.
There's a lot of trash talk in the food world at the moment. Food waste is a hot topic: finding ways to curb it is at the top of food trend lists, and many people's food resolutions. But instead of focusing our attention on how to repurpose wilting veggies into soup for the homeless, or grocery-store throwaways into meals for poor families, let's resolve to think big in 2017 and challenge the notion that food waste can be the solution to hunger. Because the idea is just plain wrong.
We've all heard the argument: Not only does food-waste diversion end hunger, it can also fight climate change. Less waste, less climate change, less hunger. It's a win-win-win. Sadly, this is dangerous thinking. Treating the hungry like walking compost bins is not only undignified, it's bad policy. Food waste can't end hunger. Food is the makings of a meal. Hunger is what happens as a result of privation and poverty. Treating hunger through society's waste compounds the indignity of hunger, and points us away from more permanent solutions.
True, North Americans waste a spectacular amount of food – 1520 calories per person per day, 42 per cent of all global food waste. The urge to remedy this catastrophe lies behind chefs giving trash the haute-cuisine treatment for the poor, as they did at the Rio Olympics. There's a case that turning what might have been garbage into delicious, finely flavoured dishes can help change people's perception about the value of food. Think of it as a sort of trickle-down aesthetics. But, like trickle-down economics, it doesn't change much. Instead, it reinforces the mistaken idea that the problem can be solved through the bellies and skillets of the poor, when in fact food waste begins much further upstream.
In rich countries, waste happens as a result of a retail system that has overabundance baked into its business model, marketing machinery that has trained consumers to expect produce as unblemished as a geometry project, a food education system that doesn't train us to cook with the seasons, and work demands that push consumers to buy food that, with the best of intentions, rots at the back of the fridge.
It's awkward to look at how our current disposable-food culture creates waste. Much easier, then, to turn the poor into garbage-disposal units. This is an international trend. Food banks in Britain handed out three-day food hampers laden with corporate leftovers more than a million times last year – a record high. In the United States, companies like ConAgra Foods, Darden and others see a public-relations win in their sponsorship of initiatives like the Food Waste Reduction Alliance. Here in Canada, the National Zero Waste Council's misguided push for a tax credit or deduction to businesses for donating their surplus food to food charities only serves to further entrench the idea that waste and poverty reduction are two sides of the same coin.
It's only when we understand hunger as a poverty problem rather than a food-deficit problem that the right policies become clearer. Ideas like the Bolsa Familia in Brazil, a social-welfare program that provides cash transfers to the poor, have had a significant impact on extreme poverty and inequality. In another Brazilian initiative, Sacolao markets sell price-controlled fruits and vegetables to ensure low-income communities have access to the best and healthiest food possible. And the Community Food Centre movement in Canada is using food as a tool to improve health, foster belonging and inspire collective action. These initiatives are important and point to the enormous power food has to bring people together and be a catalyst for positive change.
Hunger will only ever be solved with transformative social policy. The millions of people going without food will only change with decent, liveable wages, affordable housing and strong social supports. These public policies can help people to live with health and dignity . These are the demands from the world's organized poor. They oughtn't to be smothered with table scraps.
Of course we need to reduce food waste, and to reimagine how we consume food. Many chefs are at the forefront of that charge. Dan Barber's book The Third Plate, for example, encourages us to be more thoughtful about how and what we eat, and are part of an important shift away from a carbon-saturated food culture. But as we're making this shift, let's resolve to abandon the idea that the poor only deserve the off-cuts of the middle class. For everyone to eat with dignity and for the planet to survive, we need to trash the idea of food waste as a solution to hunger.