Food waste is a moral problem

When I was young, we had this weird notion at home that only visitors were allowed to leave scraps of food on their plates during meals. You know, to show that food was not their main reason for visiting. For us, the hosts, food, once on the plate, was meant to be cleared.

And boy, did we do a good job of it! If you could get pictures of our plates from the times of my childhood, you would have trouble differentiating the look of the plate before and after a meal. The only time we had leftovers was when we took bony meat or big fish. And even then we tried. The bones were always left… well, bone white.

Of course, at some point I stopped being young and left home to go advance my education at a boarding high school. And there things seemed to change. Leaving food on the plate was not only the norm, it was a norm that nobody seemed to think or worry too much about. I cannot give accurate statistics, but I would not be far from the truth if I said that between a quarter and a half of all the food ever served to high school students, at least in my school, went to waste. But I know it wasn’t only in my school. The same was also true in the university I went to and is typical of all the other universities I have ever visited.

As a result, huge bins for collecting food waste are a common feature in the dining rooms/halls of many institutions and eateries in Kenya. Guys pile mounds of food on their plates, walk to a table, scratch through parts of the food, dropping a few scraps on the table-top, and then carry the rest, perfectly edible food, to a bin and dump it there. They then stop worrying about it. They don’t think of where it will go, what it will do, and what impact it will have on the world around them. Neither do they think of what it took to grow, transport, prepare and serve that food onto their plates.

Well, here is a reminder of what goes into making food: water, human labour, land, and tons of energy. And that’s just making it. Even more is expended in packaging, preserving, transporting and cooking/preparing it. Every time you throw away food, you waste all of these inputs, and you create the new problem of discarding that food safely, which will need even more resources. And decomposing food also creates by-products, like carbon dioxide and methane, which are greenhouse gases. Little wonder therefore that, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

As if that weren’t already bad enough, there’s also the fact that billions of people worldwide don’t have enough food. Around the world right now, two billion people are malnourished and 2.6 million children a year die because of malnutrition (that’s a third of child deaths globally). And that’s just the beginning. In Kenya, right now, talk of insufficient, and highly expensive, maize flour, which is the main ingredient of our staple food, is a hot political topic. And no doubt, if you live in an urban area, you have been stopped countless times by a kid with a running nose, or a lady in tattered clothes with a dirty kid on her back, who asked you for ten shillings to buy food. I was stopped twice just yesterday.

Yet, with all that, if you were to rummage through neighbourhood and institutional dustbins, you would find that almost half of all the waste there is some form or other of waste food. If you walk into homes and institutional dining rooms after any meal, you will find plates with mounds of leftover food. If you walk to your city’s main dumpsite, you will be greeted with the same situation. As in, with all that, people still have the cheek to leave food on their plates or throw it into bins. Isn’t this the point where someone is perfectly within his rights to ask, “Are you kidding me?”

There are countless technical arguments that could be made against food waste. It is inefficient, unsustainable and bad for the environment. But, perhaps the strongest argument is moral. Food waste is, if you think about it, the crudest, cruelest and most nefarious manifestation of inequality in society. Of the three basic needs of man – food, shelter and clothing – food is the only, really necessary one for the survival of an individual. To think that people somewhere might be throwing away food while others don’t have enough is a very distressing reality. Yet we live with it as if it were a fundamental thread in the fabric of our society. It is a clear sign that we have stopped caring for one another.

It needs to change. You and I need to change it. And how do we do that? First, by serving only the amount of food we need at every meal. Second, by finishing what we have served. Third, by asking our friends (and kids, for those of us who have them) to finish their food if they leave anything – wait for them if you have to. Fourth, by only buying food that we know we will consume – it is sad to let food go bad because we never really got around to it in the three months it spent in our fridge. Fifth, by giving away food we don’t think we will need – I am sure there’s an orphanage or home for the old somewhere near you. Sixth, by thinking creatively about it – there are countless other ways to combat this problem.

One last thing that has just crossed my mind; you know, if you frequently take this matter into account, you will not only do the planet and the people you share it with a huge favour, you might also find yourself never struggling with your weight. How about that for a bonus point?

Want another bonus point? Here is a video with more insights into this topic:

Feature image: Takepart

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  1. Great read. This got me thinking of those genuine beggars I meet. Sometimes I pass them, not because I don’t have money to give but because I don’t have coins. How better would it be to package the excess food from my house, carry it and give it to them instead.

    1. Thanks Lincoln for your comment. Now that’s what I call thinking creatively about it. You see! You just found a solution!

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