Food: Going to Waste or to Waist?
Dealing with Food Waste Starts with a Shift in Mindset
Suzanne Armstrong, CFFO Director of Research and Policy
My grandparents both lived through the Depression and came out of it with a healthy sense of thrift. Where my grandfather was obsessed with the price of gasoline, my grandmother was obsessed with the price of food, how “dear” things like bananas or bread had gotten. Good value was measured according to volume of food for money down.
Since she had six children to feed, her careful management of the grocery budget benefited the whole household. Having grown up on a farm, she knew the value of food and passed on not only her thriftiness but also taboos against wasting food to her children and grandchildren. In other words, eat what’s on your plate, and don’t throw food away.
Today’s food taboos are very different. Health and fitness blogs ask, “Is your food going to waste or to waist?” They suggest that it might be better to throw food out (along with its convenient packaging) than to over-eat. Instead of the careful thrift of my grandmother’s generation, convenience and health claims are the focus of the day.
Still, that lingering notion of value (volume for money) has not left us. Who can resist buying in bulk or getting some extra of whatever is on sale? We can shop for a whole week, or even two, in grocery stores filled with aisles of fresh, frozen, boxed and canned foods. We have lots of room in our fridges and freezers back home to store it all. Our fridges are now so big, we need cameras inside so we can see what’s at the back!
This is a symptom of our larger cultural tendency to overconsume.
In 2016, Ontario began its attempt to curb waste through the Strategy for a Waste-Free Ontario, a plan “to build a system that puts valuable materials destined for landfill back into the economy.” The goal is to stop waste in the first place, instead of just figuring out ways to deal with it later.
Waste-free goals for the food sector are still under review, and the CFFO has offered several recommendations to government. Currently, Ontario’s “Proposed Food and Organic Waste Framework” suggests that we need a significant change in behaviour, which starts with a shift in our “understanding of food in general.”
I would argue that change needs to go further than just our behaviour. It actually starts with a change in our mindset about the true value of food. We have to start thinking beyond volume for dollar, or we’re going to keep on wasting.
It’s an old idea. The value of food is in family and cultural traditions passed down, in love from caregiver to receiver, in memories from childhood, in the expression of our ethical choices, in the foods we choose to share and those we choose to avoid. At its best, food is about relationships that connect us to other people and to nature.
The value of food is also in the entire “value-chain” that produces, processes, transports, and markets it. Where food can carry a sense of relationship or connection, it increases the value people put on the food they eat.
This means that the sense of the value of food moves beyond just volume for dollar, and the taboo against wasting it comes from a deeper sense that what is truly wasted—those relationships between people and with God’s creation—which is more than just lost dollars.