Capitalism has coopted the language of food – costing the world millions of meals
Article by Megan Blake, Director of the MA Food Security and Food Justice, University of Sheffield
Hardly a day goes by when food is not in the news. We are at once encouraged to eat healthily, buy locally, and reduce food waste. Meanwhile, stories about the various groups of people going hungry are also on the rise – malnourished elderly people, children’s holiday hunger, and rising food insecurity. Increases in these rates have been linked to government policies such as welfare reform and commercial protections that give rise to zero-hours contracts. But in my view the problem is deeper than this – it is embedded in the way we talk about food. The language we use is confusing – it creates feelings of guilt and enhances social divisions.
Most people in economically developed countries purchase at least some of their food from a supermarket, where food is sold to make a profit, usually for a large corporation. We tend to think of this as ordinary food. Food acquired through other means – for example, from local allotments, supermarket surpluses, digital food sharing apps, community refrigerators, community food programmes, or gleaning – is considered alternative food.
By thinking of food in this way we imply value judgements on the consumers. Finding a new language could enable a more healthy, pleasurable and sustainable relationship with the food that is available to all of us, whoever we are.
Surplus food is food intended for supermarkets, but for a variety of reasons is no longer able to be exchanged commercially.
One recent example is a chicken production plant closed for poor hygiene and mislabelling practices, not because the food, prior to reaching the plant, was inherently bad. Thousands of chickens were wasted but if the producer had been able to move quickly to a charity or discounter who could collect, package, and distribute the meat, it would not have been wasted. None could be found in time.
Other examples include packaging malfunctions, over-supply due to favourable growing conditions, unexpected changes in demand or when food is oddly shaped and therefore deemed unsaleable by supermarkets. If such food is rescued it is sometimes sold to discount retailers who sell the surplus more cheaply and are one of the largest growing sectors in the UK. Food may also become animal feed, be composted, or turned into biofuel.
Increasingly, this surplus food is donated to organisations such as FareShare, Food Cycle, Real Junk Food Projects, and others in the UK but also in other countries. Donated surplus is distributed to eaters through cafes, community pantries, social eating, cooking lessons and the like, or indirectly through charities and third sector organisations who then feed people in many ways – often not as emergency food providers (foodbanks).
We don’t really know how much surplus food is rescued and donated. But in 2017 FareShare helped distribute the equivalent of 28.6m meals to nearly 7,000 organisations. Food from the Community Shop network provided almost 4m meals, and City Harvest delivered just shy of 1m meals to organisations in London. Despite this, figures suggest that considerably more could be rescued. Wrap (Waste and Resources Action Programme ), estimates that nearly 2m tons of food is wasted annually from the UK commercial sector (one ton is approximately 2,380 meals), much of which could have been eaten.
Shared, social, sustainable food
The links that surplus food has with waste and commercial loss cause us to see surplus food as inferior food, despite its edibility. While I agree that austerity and welfare policies are causing great harm to families and communities, I also know that donated surplus food is a resource that supports the resilience of organisations aiming to help struggling communities and households.
The effect of framing surplus food as second class dismisses the positive social, cultural, environmental and economic values of this food, complicates how organisations aiming to help communities can do so while still preserving dignity, and for eaters, comes to signify a failure to engage with the commercial supply chain. All while giving the commercial sector a pass.
Access to free or low cost surplus food is a means for expanding tight budgets, enabling community interactions, and enhancing personal and household well-being through social cooking and eating activities. It also brings people together.
So, what if we referred to surplus food as shared or social food? This language would reflect the social role this food plays and we would associate it more closely with the care of self, family, community and planet that this food enables.