The food on our plates

August 17, 2014

It is good to know that well established businesses send leftovers to homeless shelters, but maybe South Asia needs to rethink cultural notions relating to food too

The food on our plates

Dear all,

It still amazes me how many people think nothing of leaving food on their plates. For decades I have told off young children for not finishing the food on their plates, but what are you to do when grown-ups seem to think it’s perfectly acceptable?

Food waste is something that upsets me a lot. There is something morally objectionable and quite reprehensible about taking food for granted, and treating it so casually when you are aware that there are many people on this planet who can barely manage even one square meal a day.

People do scoff at this idea by saying that "one can hardly mail one’s leftovers to the starving children in Africa", but that criticism misses the point: The point is that it is morally indefensible to throw away food.

On a social level awareness of this does seem to have increased in this century: several practices that had hitherto been acceptable because they conformed to economic or health regulations (dumping of produce by farmers or ‘food mountains’, supermarkets and businesses disposing of food past its ‘sell-by date’ even though it is safe to consume etc. etc.) have been questioned and modified. According to the anti-waste organisation WRAP, between 2007 and 2012 avoidable household food waste in the UK was cut by 21 per cent. This particular organisation was set up in 2000 to work on making recycling the norm rather than the exception.

Various well established businesses who had previously just binned left-over food at the end of the working day now send their food to homeless shelters or other charities or have a fixed time and place when it can be distributed free to those who need to eat but cannot afford to buy a meal.

Obviously, reforming and re-thinking practices linked to economic policy and trade regulations is a big task, but it is good to know that people are working on this and that the motivation is a morally defined principle rather than a monetary profit motive. But what about on a micro level? What about the people around us? Those who think nothing of heaping large amounts of food on their plate and then leaving most of it? Those who order portions too large for their appetites but then think it is tacky to ask the restaurant to pack their food? Those (mainly in South Asian societies) who find having other people’s leftovers to be repellent (‘jhoota ho gaya’)?

As a child I was given the apocalyptic warning that if ever I left any of the rice on my plate, then come Judgement Day I would be obliged to pick up each grain I’d wasted in my wastrel life -- using my eyelashes! I’m not sure if I believe that now, or if it horrifies me as much as it once did (eyelashes, for goodness sake!!) but I do recognise that there is a sound belief underpinning it: that wasting food is a bad thing.

This is no casual matter.

Best wishes

The food on our plates