Recently Minu Pauline, who runs a popular local restaurant called Pappadavada in the Keralan city of Kochi, had a brilliantly simple idea. She wanted to do something to help the poor and homeless of her district, and it upset her that as a restaurant owner, she was responsible for creating food waste each day.
So she put a fridge on the pavement outside her restaurant. She stocked it with packages of fresh yet leftover food that were not going to be eaten. And she went to other restaurants, hotels and local people in the area, and asked them to contribute. Homeless and other people unable to afford to buy food were encouraged to help themselves.
When I read this story it got me thinking about the tourism industry and its response to the ever-growing issue of food waste. I spent several hours reading through reports and stories, building up statistics, quotes and examples of innovative responses from companies large and small.
I learned that according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly 33% of the food produced for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted. That the world wastes all the agricultural output from 5.4 million square miles of land — an area half as large as the USA. And that when all this food rots it creates methane with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Apparently if food waste was a country, it would be the third largest contributor to climate change.
I also read of all manner of technical solutions – such as the hotels and other companies converting their waste food into energy. Others are mulching it into compost for their hotel gardens. And many companies are developing complex – and much needed – action plans to measure the amount of food waste being created and set up targets and deliverables and outcomes.
All of these technical responses are undoubtedly necessary. But read together they left a nagging doubt. Are they actually the answer? Or do they risk allowing the main issue to continue – namely too much food being produced that doesn’t get eaten.
Because I also read that “83% of the public would ask for a doggy box but don’t think they can or are too embarrassed,” according to the Sustainable Restaurant Association. It left me wondering how much of the wider problem results from not challenging a set of inbuilt beliefs about food and tourism, such as the assumption that hotels will supply a buffet table groaning with produce, and guests will pile as much food onto their plates as possible.
Last week someone shared the above image, a photo from inside the Pick and Pay supermarket chain in South Africa. It reads “Sorry, some of our fruit and vegetable are not up to our usual standard. The severe drought is taking its toll. However, to keep supporting farmers and to provide you with the option to decide, we will continue to stock these products.
This also challenges an assumption. So too would writing on your menu that you encourage guests to ask for a doggy bag if they want to take their leftover food back to their room, or out on their excursion. Or like Minu Pauline – whose restaurant relies upon people paying for food – putting a fridge outside her front door that gives food away free to those that need it most.
We need to work out what to do about ‘waste’ food. Yes their are technical solutions. But much of the answer is to do with what we perceive as waste, and how we talk about it with our guests.