That we are profligate when it comes to letting food cross the line and become a waste is not in dispute. What is open for debate is/are the reason(s) why and path to logical interventions. As a numbers guy I want to measure things and to be honest I carry a strong bias that quantitative measures (i.e. things that can be counted, weighed etc.) are the only way to get to the bottom of any question. Of course that is not true. Quantitative measures are only previously qualitative measures that we have been able to wrap a number around.
Quantitative measures answer the what of how much food becomes waste but as alluded to above does not answer the why. While surveys and the like can be used to get at the why some sort of observational research can provide insights that cannot be gleaned in other manners.
Watson and Meah, (2012) investigate the tensions between food safety and food crossing the line to becoming a waste through the lens of qualitative and ethnographic data collected using focus groups, life history interviews and interviews. Their research was designed “to explore the gap in understanding the differences in sayings and doings.” They sought to move beyond discursive text based methods and incorporate visually based ethnographic methods into their research. This basically included researchers “hanging out” with members of various households to watch them shop for and prepare food for their respective families.
People are concerned about food safety and use a number of methods to ascertain it. “Best before” dates play a variable role in determining food safety and depended on the family member. On the one hand it can be taken literally to the other extreme to where it is cynically viewed as a ploy by food retailers to sell more food. People make liberal use of their senses to help them ascertain perceived food safety. At some point the disposal of food comes from a more abstract visceral response than a literal reaction to the information provided by one of their senses. The notion of “disgust” seemed to transcend the direct information provided by their senses.
Letting food cross the line to waste appears to have a distinct generational component and this was not a function of age brings wisdom. The older generation are the last to have suffered and been informed by scarcity and have some memory of what it is like to be food insecure. Since the second world war most of us have been lucky to not know scarcity. The younger generations have no real frame of reference when it comes to food. It is always there. Even after letting food become waste.
A key driver used in current interventions to reduce food from becoming food waste is the environment and specifically greenhouse gas generation. While an important consideration it is of relatively minor importance to householders. What is important to them is money. Crass isn’t it? Put in academic terms the discussion turns to “thrift” and its practice.
In a way this is a bit of an “aha” moment for me. My hypothesis at the outset of my research is that a combination of money, environment and social impact would motivate people to change their behaviours. Money, in my mind has always been the number one motivator. Some people care enough about the environment to doing something about it. More people care about money. I would think that almost everyone perceives, whether true or not, that money is scarce. I have thought long and hard about whether there is a way to create artificial food scarcity where none exists. I don’t think it is possible. I think the angle to work on is the scarcity of money as embodied in the concept of thrift.
That makes the development of intervention development easier than it sounds. Watson and Meah (2012) point out that the wasting of food is the result of the confluence of the many activities that make up our days and the choices and compromises that need to be made. It could be safely argued I think that time is also scarce. I don’t have time to prepare this meal or reheat this leftover can be manifest as food being wasted. As they say time is money and concerns about both can be morphed into some kind of useful intervention.
In their conclusions Watson and Meah (2012) steer us towards using thrift to develop food waste reduction interventions. If we know the dollar value of food that we throw out perhaps this will motivate us to buy better and/or throw out less. Interventions based on the concept of thrift still need to consider how food becomes waste through everyday processes. Understanding this better will help to identify at what parts of our daily routines thrift tools can best be deployed.
Watson, M., & Meah, A. (2012). Food, waste and safety: negotiating conflicting social anxieties into the practices of domestic provisioning Food, waste and safety. The Sociological review (Keele), 60(suppl.2), 102-120. doi:10.1111/1467-954X.12040
Note: Photo from food waste audit.