December 19th, 2013
by Peter Jones
For most Isonomia readers, Christmas will be a time of plenty – even of excess. Too much food, perhaps too much to drink – and maybe a little too much of certain relatives who outstay their welcome. It’s a time that brings people together – but it also puts in stark relief the divisions within society.
The annual retelling of the story of Charles Dickens’s endlessly reinvented A Christmas Carol seems ever more appropriate. In our increasingly redickensianised society, those who ‘have’ are conditioned to keep acquiring, and to see the ‘have nots’ rather than the ‘have yachts’ as the reason why they don’t have more.
Famously, the first act by which Scrooge signals turning over a new leaf is to buy the Cratchits a turkey. At Christmas in particular, nothing brings the difference between those with plenty and those without into sharper relief than food. While some worry about where their Christmas meal will come from, for the affluent, excess can easily turn into waste. Indeed, waste is all around us – as Tesco revealed this year, the system that keeps our shops stocked has waste built into it at every stage. With waste so endemic, what can we do about it as individuals?
Here we come a waste hierarch-ing
A good way to start thinking about it is with the ‘food waste hierarchy’, put forward in the Food Waste Bill last year. Kerry McCarthy MP’s proposed legislation, which despite cross-party support, failed to make progress beyond a first reading, was focused on the waste produced by public bodies, food retailers and manufacturers; but the principles it contains hold true for individuals. The Bill was a sensible proposal, and Eunomia called for its reintroduction as part of its Waste Prevention Wish-List, as one of the best measures that the England could include in its national Waste Prevention Plan to try to reduce waste.
The hierarchy is easy to apply at home, even at Christmas. The first thing to remember is that disposal is the lowest rung – any time you find yourself about to stick food in the bin, or wash it down the sink, pause for thought: is there an alternative?
Those of us whose councils provide a household food waste collection have an easy way to move one step up the hierarchy. At the very least, we needn’t put in the bin any food waste that could be collected separately for composting or anaerobic digestion. Those who have space for a compost heap or bin can put our potato and parsnip peelings to use in there, rather than to waste in a black sack.
One step up from recycling is feeding waste food to animals. Pigs are nature’s great convertors of food waste, but there are things you can do at this level of the hierarchy even if you don’t go the whole hog. Some leftovers may be suitable for the bird table: bread crumbs (so long as they’re not mouldy) or any left-over rice from that turkey curry are both ideal. If you have a dog, he or she will no doubt take great pleasure in eating up anything you have left over on your Christmas dinner plate.
Stepping up another level, we can help food to reach humans instead of being wasted. At home, there are any number of recipes to help turn leftovers into the next meal, and it takes just a little inventiveness to avoid feeling like you’re having the same food over and over again.
I saw free chips…
While some of us need to be encouraged to use up our leftovers, others have to rely on handouts to have access to food at all. The Trussell Trust reported in October that the number of people receiving help had more than doubled: “Almost 350,000 people have received at least three days emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks during the last 12 months”. That’s a huge number of people struggling to find enough food to get by.
One of the best ways to tackle this is food redistribution – increasingly, supermarkets and other grocers are passing their surplus on to charities to distribute to those who can’t afford to feed themselves and their families. It’s a measure that makes sense from a waste management point of view, while providing a form of societal first aid, addressing some of the most extreme symptoms of poverty.
Another way in which we can support this level of the hierarchy as individuals is to give money to support food redistribution charities. In recent years Eunomia has donated a substantial part of its carbon fund, through which it offsets the CO2 generated through the travel and other energy use associated with its work, to Fareshare. Personally, instead of buying a set of charity Christmas cards that offer a paltry donation to their chosen cards, I’m just sending ordinary cards and making a direct donation to Foodcycle. That way, I can choose the charity, and make the amount meaningful – rather than perhaps 30p out of a £2.50 price tag, as was the case with even the best charity cards I saw in the shops.
However, what can be in shorter supply at this time of year in particular are volunteers. In Bristol, many of those who give their time are students, who return to their parents during vacations. Just when food inequalities are most keenly felt, the ability of charities to address them is at its lowest. Giving your time to support a charity is the one of the most valuable things you can do at Christmas. It’s a form of giving that is far more personal and powerful than a donation and has benefits not just in terms of waste management, or because of the relief it brings to those who are fed as a result: it’s also good for you.
A recent literature review by Lampeter University for Volunteering England suggests that volunteers obtain a number of benefits including increasing their ability to cope with their own ill health or problems, improved relationships with family members, improved self-esteem and a better quality of life. Volunteers are less likely to be afflicted with depression, stress, hospitalisation and psychological distress. Volunteering can also be a route back to work, and have positive effects on people such as young offenders, helping to reduce their dependence on statutory services and divert them from criminal activity.
The trolley and the gravy
Even if that all sounds a bit difficult or costly, with a little planning you can lighten your trolley, save money and hit the top of the hierarchy by preventing waste altogether. Plan out the meals you’re going to serve, and how many people will be present; and be realistic about how much people will eat. Shop in line with your plan – if you haven’t got a lot of guests, it can be cheaper to go to a greengrocer and buy the number of sprouts (and other veg) that you actually need than to buy a big bag at the supermarket, only for half of them to rot in the fridge. You don’t have to scrimp, and everyone can have plenty – you just don’t need to stock up for an army if you’re feeding barely a battalion.
The lessons we can learn about food waste at Christmas remain relevant for the rest of the year. It’s easy to forget that Dickens’s moral was not that Ebenezer Scrooge lacked the necessary enthusiasm for tinsel or turned his nose up at Christmas crackers. Nor was it a simple matter of providing poultry to the poor.
He resolved “to honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” the change in his behaviour might have started at Christmas, but he carried through into the rest of his life. As a result of Scrooge’s spectral Christmas adventure, “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” In an early example of the Living Wage in action, he even raised Bob Cratchit’s pay, and became “a second father” to Tiny Tim.
As a result “His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.” Perhaps adopting the food waste hierarchy, both at Christmas and over the year ahead, might give you a touch of the cardiac chortles yourself.