For the last ten days, I've been taking part in the Recycle for London Food Waste Challenge. Last weekend I managed to chalk up over 3 kilos of food waste. I appreciate that the challenge is not about creating as much waste as possible, but I was very happy with the total. Here’s why.
The problem with a challenge like this is it tends to be self-selecting: the people who sign up are probably already very aware of eating sustainably and rather pleased with the way they manage food and leftovers economically and creatively. My blog persona (WasteladyN8) is such a one. So if anything my aspiration for this fortnight has been to produce a zero result, not just reduce my waste..
But then I went to stay with my elderly mother in Ireland. My mum is 92 and lives on her own. She is part of a kindly village community and is well supported by friends and local services. Every Friday she rings through her food order to the local Spar who deliver four or five bags of groceries (plastic bags, I’m afraid, but we will see what happens when the ban comes through in Northern Ireland). My brother and I come to see her regularly and then there are usually twice as many bags!
During my visit, one of my jobs is to clean out the fridge and the vegetable rack: hence the shameful total in this week of Food Waste Challenge. So what kind of things featured in the list of shame? Sausages, pies and dairy products, now out of date; bruised or mouldy fruit and vegetables; stale bread; and a pie case that had lost its crispness.
Actually although I used the word, ‘shame’ (twice), I don’t want to be judgemental. For one thing, some of the items were mine, mostly the fancy ones, such as the pie case and the apples I was going to make into chutney. When I asked my mum why she ordered so much, she explained that she followed the list she always used, because it was easier to do this 'automatically.’ Bending down, checking the fridge, planning meals ahead is an effort. Her diet is very simple and healthy but she never actually eats all the cauliflower, carrots and head of celery she orders every week. I suspect the vegetables are really an aspiration, one she never quite lives up to, and she is not alone there. It’s a bit like having a gym membership and never going.
In my mother’s case, buying food is just another chore which she needs to make as easy as possible, relying on a trusted formula which is not responsive to different situations. I have tried putting systems in places, such as lists and inventories, but in the end, it is up to her. Asking her helper to put away the groceries and write a list for the coming week might be the solution, but Mum needs to be involved in the process.
Another factor is the guests. When my brother, wife, son and new wife came to stay, Mum ordered three of everything, except for the chicken. She ordered two of those. Help! They were so full afterwards, they could hardly stand.
My mother’s attitude to food is not atypical in Northern Ireland. Surprising for such thrifty, down-to-earth people, the helpings in restaurants and hotels are enormous and the best compliment you can bestow upon a restaurant is, it gives you ‘a good feed.’ The carvery is the meal of choice, always difficult for me, because of the compulsion to balance a bit of everything on one plate, return to the table and then struggle to finish. A local hotel introduced a similar system for desserts, but that proved uneconomic: a waitress is now employed to stand guard over the array of sweet temptations.
For me the challenge of food waste is not just to reduce or reuse it creatively but to explore the psychology behind it. The upside of waste is to see it not as extravagance and poor management, but abundance, a perception which is deeply embedded in our culture and indeed psyche. We know we are hardwired to eat high calorie foods for fear of famine and starvation, and to feast on surplus.
By the same token, appearing stingy is inhospitable and so we overcompensate by being overly generous with portions and choice. And just as the provider does not want to appear stinting, the recipient does not want to seem ungrateful or ungracious. I suppose the solution is to desist, to say a gentle and firm, ‘No thank you,’ which will establish boundaries and set precedents, but that is not always easy in social (and family) situations.
Reducing food waste should be fun, a challenge to meet and cherish, not another opportunity to feel less than perfect. In a world of abundance and opportunity, we all slip up. As I go into the second week, I am curious to see what my results will be and I'm hoping to finally get round to making that chutney!