Food scarcity during and after the two World Wars changed the UK’s outlook on food security. Nations sought to increase food production to increase national food security, and the emphasis was on quantity and maximising available calories.
Skip forward to 2019, and the UK imported 53 per cent of its fresh fruit and veg. As a nation, we waste 30 per cent of available food. Still shocking to some people is the 50 per cent of food that is wasted in every household: my home, and yours, too. As consumers – citizens – we throw away 63,000 thousand tonnes of apples every year, 710,000 thousand tonnes of potatoes and 96,000 tonnes of carrots.
The waste charity, WRAP, reports that “food waste from UK households is still around 6.6 million tonnes, 70 per cent of which was intended to be eaten.. associated with more than 20 million tonnes of GHG emissions. The food that could have been eaten (4.5 million tonnes), but ends up as waste, would make the equivalent of around 10 billion meals.”
What is to be done? Max LaManna, influencer and author, asked me this question as part of BBC Earth’s Regeneration series, now airing on Facebook. I’ll admit: I hate the question. The slide into blind middle-class foodie dogma is easy: ‘Just teach people to value food!’ or, ‘If people just learned how easy it is to [insert time heavy recipe], they just wouldn’t waste it’. There are two problems with this argument.
Food is not central to UK culture and family life. Countries with stronger food cultures have mechanised at different rates, and have higher rates of people living in agrarian societies on lower incomes. As such, anyone who wants to help communities avoid returning to subsistence living needs to introduce a new approach to food waste and abandon visions of humble poverty.
22 per cent of the UK’s population live in poverty. I’ve had the chance to volunteer with the Trussell Trust, and with Alexandra Rose Charity; both of which support families who rely on charity to meet their basic needs, and who could be at increased risk of poverty through price rises. Talk of increasing food prices without tackling Universal Credit and austerity will consign more of the UK’s population to hunger
“Education”, I said to Max, “it’s about the state taking some responsibility”. Action from the top: not leaving the responsibility to the individual, or pretending that we have ‘free will’ despite evidence proving how vulnerable we are to amazingly powerful advertising campaigns, our lived environments and lived experience.
And then, of course: lockdown, and the resulting change in habits.
Campaigning charity Hubbub commissioned market research in the second week of April, and it found that around half of respondents were wasting less food than before lockdown.
The most frequent reasons given for wasting less are simple: planning more meals, getting better at eating leftovers, shopping less frequently (so consumers thinking more carefully about their weekly shopping) and using the freezer more effectively.
Seeing ‘meal planning’ as the most significantly cited example of how to waste less surprised me. Pleasantly surprised, but in my professional experience of talking about food waste prevention at home, I’ve been met with resistance about planning. Reasons? “I don’t have the time”, “it’s boring”, “When we try no-one sticks to the plan anyway”.
When Max asked me ‘How can we make the biggest change?’, I think I fluffed it a bit; I was still finding my voice and bricking it about my first TV appearance. Now I say: let’s meet our communities where they are.
Let’s work on more flexible working arrangements for every job that can facilitate it. And proper wages. Food programming and campaigning to help people learn to trust their senses about what out-of-date milk actually smells like, an end to best-before dates on supermarket veg and fruit and a new-found respect for the agile meal-planner