1001 Water-and waste-wise ways: A bit of a rant about food waste

Salad leaves from the veggie patch. Fed by my compost, so a cycle…

Salad leaves from the veggie patch. Fed by my compost, so a cycle…

Researching waste is turning me into a misanthropist, and today I need to get a little rant off my chest.

I was working in a coffee shop the other day, at a communal table shared with two young women eating breakfast. One sent back half her meal uneaten; the other barely touched an enormous order. She ate one egg. Back to the kitchen went the toast, the butter, the jam, the tomatoes, a second egg, the cheese she’d ordered separately, the bacon, the potato. The waiter actually asked if anything had been wrong with the meal: no, it had been “delicious”.

My question is this: if all she’d wanted was an egg, why the sam hill didn’t she order just that? When did we get so blasé about wasting food? Why has it become ethically normative to ask people often earning minimum wages to prepare us luxury meals which we then expect them to chuck in the bin after we’ve taken a few bites?

Most especially, why do folk let their children do this? I’ve lost track of how often I’ve seen tweens slurp down most of a milkshake and then take one listless nibble of their burger and chips before pushing their plate away. What happened to the rule of “No sweets/treats until you’ve finished your main meal”? And even writing these words, I’m aware that my hair is winding into a bun and my mouth wrinkling into a prune. I DON’T CARE. This Mother Grundy has a bug up her nose.

I once tackled a twelve-year-old who’d just thrown away a can of Coke after taking one swig, and was told that it wasn’t as if he could give “poor people” his discarded drink. He had zero awareness of what it cost the planet and other human beings, in terms of water, materials, energy and transport, to make the can of fizzy syrup he’d just contributed to local landfill. And that reminds me of the relative visiting from the UK who took one bite of a takeaway meal, pronounced it disgusting, and threw it into a public bin IN FRONT OF small children who were begging for food. When asked why he hadn’t offered it to them, the answer was that “it would have been patronising.” Yep, being forced to scrabble in that garbage bin really safeguarded the dignity of those kids.

I could go on. Why are some people embarrassed when I put my leftovers into a Tupperware or ask for a doggie bag? (Tupperware is a great solution to the problem, imported from the US, of “portion distortion”.) I am at best what a friend calls a demi-vegetarian, but every time I see people chucking away meat, I have to restrain myself. “An animal DIED so that you could have it lying on your plate,” I want to snap. “Could you at least show a little respect?”

We waste many things, but food waste hits a nerve like no other. I’m seething about this because it’s the time of year that appeals for Christmas/holiday food parcels for vulnerable families, invalids and pensioners go out (I used to write these for Breadline Africa). This is to supply needy folk with such luxuries as cooking oil, rice, maize-meal, baked beans, teabags and GASP, a whole tin of jam (sorry, I’m too rattled to switch off the sarcasm font). The Oasis appeal noted that courtesy of inflation, drought, petrol price hikes, etc, their standard parcel had risen from costing around R500 to R600 in one year. It includes such treats as 1 X tin of fish (pilchards). This while the rich are scarfing down pistachio-brandy mince pies. No wait, that’s still OK, sort of – it’s when the rich toy with a mince pie and then throw it into the bin that I get red spots in front of my eyes.

I know it’s become hugely politically incorrect to urge people to finish what’s on their plates, so here’s a new rule: don’t put it on your plate unless you want it all. Think of it this way: your host or family member has made a delicious meal. You dish up, then ceremoniously scrape some of it into the trash before tucking in. Breathtakingly rude as well as insanely wasteful? How is this different from doing it at the end of a meal?

One of the things I learned researching water was how much of it goes into growing and preparing food. That alone is good reason not to waste food.

Look, I am not advocating parsimony and austerity (dangerously close to “playing” at being poor, in any case). There’s not a human culture or society since the beginning of time that hasn’t celebrated happy occasions with banquets and fermented liquids. It’s a wonderful, comforting and joyous thing to do.

So my next post will be about the many constructive ways we can avoid wasting food (it takes a bit of planning and practice), but here’s a start (and now I’m going to sound super-traditional): say grace before a meal. Yes, even if you’re a hard-core atheist. Stop and THINK before you pick up your spoon. Consider all the elements that went into making what’s on your plate, that everyday magic of air, water, soil, seeds, crops, animals, labour, loving hands and care. Breathe. Enjoy the aromas. And give thanks. It will make us all more mindful and thoughtful eaters.

Home-made tomato and basil soup.

Home-made tomato and basil soup.

Helen Moffett