For the last two months we have been seeing a radical change in the majority of our activities, different spheres of our lives were affected by the new measures taken to fight the spread of the Covid19 pandemic. As Taste Before You Waste, we also had to adapt to the new situation in order to continue with our mission to save food from waste and at the same time had to avoid social contact. We had to cancel our community dinners for the impossibility of respecting the distance rules but we managed to continue to collect discarded food from our trusted partners and deliver it to a number of different community centres and other free spaces supporting undocumented migrants, such as Wereldhuis and We Are Here. Thanks to the help of our volunteers the activities could continue in a different way, but the absence of financial support, previously coming from people attending the dinners, put us in a vulnerable situation. This led to the creation of a Patreon account to support our fixed expenses.
The good news is that we have started our wasteless dinners again this week!
Of course we have been flowing with the changes and regulations set out, the spirit remains the same: avoid food from going to waste and promote an inclusive social environment for everyone in order to help us be part of the change we want to see in the world.
The relation between people and food changed in many interesting ways during the pandemic, unfortunately the space of this article would not be enough to describe it. There would be the need for a long multisided research in order to include all the aspects that emerged, changed or persisted in this new reality. We can still try to make some relevant reflections about the topic and see how food waste may have been affected from the situation and in general how this crisis could be an occasion to speak even more about the necessity of reshaping our food systems.
The pandemic hit different ways in various places, the measures taken to fight it were also diverse, but in the majority of cases we saw a level of restriction in social interaction. During the time of self isolation we could notice how food regained a central spot, the news channels were full of articles talking about how some people started to bake bread (at the point that yeast became impossible to find in most supermarkets), great chefs began to make video tutorials for people to cook their recipes at home, since their restaurants were closed, and cooking turned into one of the most entertaining activities someone could do inside their home.
If for people who have the luxury to work from home and are able to continue to purchase food like before, cooking became a tool to experiment and appreciate a new routine during the days , for other people it started to be a matter of worry. The pandemic and its changes to the social and economic structure of realities determined that a lot of people entered a situation of food insecurity due to the loss of income.
“We are seeing people who were never hungry before” says Jasmine Crowe of a non profit association in Atlanta (USA), whose words could be valid for many different geographical contexts where food banks saw a pick in the requests for the help . This meant a restructure of the free food distribution circuits and the creation of new ones based on solidarity between individuals. For example, the city of Lisbon, Portugal, has seen the emergence of different “social canteens” run by donations and volunteers that are giving out food for free for whoever is in need . This not only helped the recipients, but also the volunteers who found in this activity a manifestation of the deep solidarity needed at the core of the society they believe in. Another example is the Italian concept of the “suspended grocery”, an experiment of social urban solidarity that connects people who can financially help with donations, supermarkets and families who are in situations of food insecurity. The anonymous donations at the center of this projects are inspired by the neapolitan tradition of the “caffé sospeso”: “The tradition began in the working-class cafés of Naples, where someone who could afford to do so would order a café sospeso, paying the price of two coffees but receiving and consuming only one. The second coffee could then be claimed by someone less fortunate." (1) A gesture of pure solidarity.
During these difficult times it was made more clear than ever that we can give up a lot of things that are “superficial” for our lives but food is still fundamental, it regained this central spot determining the intensification of the discussion on how to build more sustainable, resilient an democratic local food systems. In order to do this, a reflection on food waste and the ways we can tackle the problem is fundamental. With even more people finding themselves in a situation of economic insecurity and inevitably having more difficulty accessing fresh food and food in general, the existence of edible goods that go to waste becomes even more problematic than before. This is integral considering that we still throw out 1/3 of the food that is produced worldwide (2)
Some interesting considerations have emerged on the changes in the production of food waste during the pandemic, for example about the food discarded at home. Since the routine was radically changed and people started to stay more in their houses, they had more power in planning the meals and in general on keeping attention on the available food. Usually the majority of waste happens in our houses, an interesting book named “Food Waste. Home consumption, material culture and everyday life” (3) by the sociologist David Evans, shows that the cause of food to be thrown away, among the English households where he conducted research, has more to do with the mechanism in which our society functions and less and less with not being conscious or informed about how to avoid this unsustainable practice. He demonstrates how the routine of people purchasing more or less the same items when they go grocery shopping conflicts with the highly unpredictable variations of everyday life, causing some foods to deteriorate and so end up in the bin. With a radical change in our routine and a more steady and predictable structure of our days, food waste is currently less likely to occur in our households. With this said, we can think that when reality comes back with its routine and normal activities, the production of food waste in our houses is likely to start growing again.
On the other side, on the production fields, some difficulties emerged because of the closing of restaurants, bars, school canteens and farmers’ markets. Some producers were highly affected because they couldn’t find a way of selling their products and sometimes they had to throw the food out or simply let it rotten in the field. As this article from The Guardian well explains for the US context:
“As US food banks handle record demand and grocery stores struggle to keep shelves stocked, farmers are dumping fresh milk and plowing vegetables back into the dirt as the shutdown of the food service industry has scrambled the supply chain” (4)
The current situation that saw a growth of dependency on conventional supermarkets with their role in favoring big producers and in general industrial agriculture, intensified the discussion about the need for more sustainable, resilient and fair local food systems. Spacing from urban agriculture and the call for a revival of the famous “victory gardens'' of the WWII time, to the incentives to Community Supported Agriculture, and the importance of agro-ecological practices. The debate takes into account the fact that there is a need for food sovereignty not only in the present but especially if we consider food practices in the context of climate change and the future scenario. It is full of interesting proposals on how to make a fairer and more environmentally friendly way of producing and distributing food, projects that deal with food waste have also to be included in this process of reshaping our systems. Now that slowly the world is going back to “normal” we should put some effort in carrying forward these kinds of questions and make this historical event an occasion to rethink how we should avoid to simply be back to an unquestioned “business as usual”.