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Food waste and the management of surplus food

In this article, we'll explore the topic of food waste and the management of surplus food. A case study is also provided.
Apples in a sack sitting on its side with excess apples falling out

A new need for research on food related topics has been growing due to the rise of several issues linked to food waste, food security and the management of surplus food.

Food waste is acknowledged to be a huge problem worldwide and has become a trending topic in the international discourse on food security. The sphere of the recovery of food surplus has gained more attention as well in recent years, in which many innovative mechanisms attempting to reduce domestic food waste ,based on Information and Communication Technologies, have emerged.

Despite the great concern and conversations on the topics, the definitions regarding the terms applied to this area of interest are not clear nor harmonized. Food waste can be defined, among the many interpretations, as:

The surplus food that is not recovered to feed people, to feed animals, to produce new products, new materials or energy (Garrone et al, 2014).

Food waste is produced in every stage of the food supply chain, however, not all the surplus can be equally recovered nor it is suitable for human consumption.

Please see CCEA (2019). Food Waste Fact Sheet in the See Also section below to explore how food waster is produced across the entire food chain

Garrone et al. (2014) developed a framework to assign a Degree of Recoverability (DoR) to food surplus at different stages of the supply chain, called Availability-Surplus-Recoverability-Waste (ASRW). The index is meant to evaluate the level of food waste at every step of the food supply chain and try to recover it and prevent it where it’s possible.

Other traditional food waste reduction mechanisms follows:

  • Optimize inventories to prevent overstocking
  • Donation of food surplus to charities
  • Sales of products near the end of their shelf-life
  • Food sharing among households
  • Raise public awareness and promote waste-reducing behaviors

The social and environmental problem of food wastage can be counterbalanced by small efforts carried out every day. Food producers can in fact invest in better harvest and storage technology to avoid food loss, food retailers can reduce prices of “imperfectly shaped” products and donate unsellable, yet edible, surplus grocery food to those in need. Moreover, food that is not fit for human consumption should be reused to feed animals and individual consumers should thrive to be more careful and aware shoppers (for example by using better methods to store and recycle leftovers or by ordering the right portion of food at restaurants). While food sharing methods seem to offer a solution to the food waste issue, it is important to underline how this mechanism does not necessarily benefit the poor. In order to present a sustainable solution or system, it is necessary to embrace the social, economic, and environmental aspects as a whole.

Case Study: Bring The Food App & QuantoSpreco?

One example of ICT application to the problem of food waste and surplus is the italian app BringTheFood. Created and launched in 2011, it was the first web application to connect potential food donors with charities and it helped collect more than 720 tons of food. It is designed so anyone registered on the platform can publish donations of surplus food and anyone who has a use for it can collect it. Furthermore, the donations have to indicate a few details of the products such as the food category, a short description, quantity and packaging, expiration date, and the availability.

What is most appealing about BringTheFood is its innovative logistics, which allow a drastic shift from traditional mechanisms of recovery, stocking and distribution, usually managed by few actors, to a more flexible approach in which smaller quantities of food are recovered by many actors.

Later, the app introduced a mediator to ensure the quality of donations and respect the guidelines set by the Food Bank, allowing only pre-approved donors to join a “private network” of entities trusted by the Food Bank.

BringTheFood also allows canteens to track their surplus and report the amount of servings available to donate organized per type of dish. In comparison to the original app experience, based on the wait for a charity to book the donations, in this formula the donations are already targeted and the pickup is guaranteed.

Another application worth citing is QuantoSpreco?, which allows the general public to reduce food waste in their households. Users have access to various tools just with one click: they can track the content of their pantries and fridges, can enter the expiration date of each item they buy, and mark consumed items so they are automatically added to a shopping list.

Moreover, a user can track their waste by marking an item as wasted or partially wasted, so the app reduces the amount required or it removes it from the shopping list. The application has the capability to estimate over time the average shelf life of products that the user buys and consumes, offering suggested recipes and improving the overall grocery shopping experience.

But taking into account the quantity of food that is wasted yearly in both developed and developing countries, by companies and citizens, it becomes evident how current practices to recover food surplus are still unable to solve food waste and overcome food poverty.

Food poverty and Food Charity

The relationship between food poverty and food charity is pivotal in the process of examining the rise of food banks in many welfare countries.

Food charity can be defined as the “process of collecting, sorting and distributing surplus or wasted food to feed the hungry poor in wealthy nations, and is one of the solutions implemented to solve the social problem of food poverty” (Dowler, 2003, p. 151). But few focal questions, about the nature and the true extent of charitable food banking, have been raised by many researchers (Poppendieck, 1998):

  • Does food charity undermine the principle of food justice and the human right to access adequate food and nutrition?
  • In which ways does it exacerbate food poverty and inequality?
  • Is food charity a moral safety valve?

Despite the rise, the institutionalization, the corporatization and the globalization of charitable food banking in rich countries, domestic hunger and food insecurity continue to remain marginalized issues for public policy regarding food, public health, income security, and social policy.

Social transformations, social inequalities, and economic crises invite us to re-examine charitable food aid as a solution to food poverty in high and upper income states. A staggering growing number of people living in wealthy countries depend on food aid, struggling to access healthy and affordable food, resulting in a higher number of food insecure citizens.

The food secure model may not represent the most appropriate perspective to implement in this contemporary reflection, since, as the critics pointed out, it is a derivative of the globalization model. The latter tends to reduce human relationships to their economic value, placing human actions and motivations in a homo economicus scheme. According to this vision, food security is strictly linked to economic growth and market mechanisms, and within this connection lies the best solution to reduce poverty. Deregulation, free competition, privatization and trade liberalization are the means applied to achieve economic growth, wealth and therefore food security (Riches, Silvasti, 2014).

People who are in need of food aid are not inevitably hungry, but they are food poor, which means that they either lack the financial ability to put food on the table and/or do not always know how to provide sufficient, nourishing and culturally acceptable meals to sustain an active healthy life. Although, developed countries and societies have made it socially unacceptable to acquire food for oneself or for the family through food banks, soup kitchens, breadlines as well as begging, shoplifting or dumpster diving.

From the perspective of critics of the concept of food security, the former lays out charitable food aid as a solution to food poverty rather than opting for a food sovereignty approach, which empowers actors to democratically and responsibly manage their own food production and distribution systems.

Giving social actors entitlement to food means giving them the possibility to choose their own food and practice their own agency. In the prevailing food system, a global and neo-liberal one, the right to food is provided and guaranteed by money and by people spending power. From this standpoint, food aid is not an entitlement, but it is a gift. If citizens are made to be consumers, the right to food and the right to choose are easily made to be business transactions (Silvasti, 2008).

Finally, to overcome and overtake an economic approach to food rights and an ever more productionist food system, critics push for the implementation of new food policies that promote socially equitable, low-carbon alternatives oriented towards public health and welfare. Experts refer to this as the “food first principle”, in contrast to the “profits first principle”, which promotes consumers freedom of choice and consumer sovereignty, along with the right to acquire safe and nutritious food (Lezberg, 1999).

What we would like you to do

Food and associated packaging waste is an environmental and ethical issue. There are a number of organisations and iniatives regionally that exist in order to tackle the issue of food waste in the food system. For example, in the UK: WRAP UK, Courtauld Commitment; and Love Food Hate Waste NI are all examples of organisations aiming to reduce food and assocaiated packaging waste.

Please use the internet to conduct your own research and find out what organisations are tackling food and associated packaging waste in your region and share them with us in the comments section below. You might want to include:

  • Name of organisation
  • A short description on how they aim to reduce food and associated food packaging waste
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