Feast for Free
As the nights begin to exhibit a touch of biting chill and the skies to start dimming greyly, it becomes clear that autumn is approaching fast. The turning of the seasons is traditionally a time of celebrations: of the abundance of nature as we revel in the gifts of the harvest of our crops, and of the fruit and nut trees and hedgerow berries, not to mention myriad edible fungi (1), which are so prolific at this time.
With the growth of the global food system into the vast proliferation of networks which it is today, these traditional celebrations have become less important. Why would the cheery red glint of the apples ripening on the trees have any significance, when an apple being flown thousands of miles across the globe to be picked by you in the fluorescent orchard of your local supermarket has become a routine occurrence? And with more people living in cities, usually with less access to land, than ever before (2), a celebration of harvest time can also seem a little irrelevant.
Having lived in both cities, where it can be easy to ignore the seasons, and in rural locations where nature’s rhythm pulses more noticeably, I understand this incongruence. However, I have also noticed that not only are the abundances of harvest-time and of seasonal wild food very much still available to those who live in cities, but that there is an interesting aspect of our industrialised food systems which has produced another kind of abundance as well: one which is becoming increasingly well-publicised in British media (see for example 3 and 4) but which for many remains a relatively unknown phenomena. This is the huge amount of surplus food which is routinely thrown away along the entire supply chain, from farmers to supermarkets and right through to us as consumers.
No one is quite sure how much as figures on these things do not get published. The Institute of Mechanical Engineers published a report last year estimating that globally, 30 – 50% of all commercial agricultural food (1.2 – 2 billion tonnes of food) (5) is wasted before it even reaches the shops, while in the UK, Love Food Hate Waste estimates that 7 million tonnes of food is thrown away every year by households alone (6).
Statistics such as these can induce quite strong emotions, and it is important that we direct these emotions towards creative solutions if we are to help to change the situation to one which is more energy efficient and beneficial. And why not see this amount of food waste in a positive light? It certainly seems as though those throwing away the food could behave differently, but in order for them to do this, the way in which we relate to food must also change (for more on this see for example 1, 7). While this is happening, we can utilise surplus food not to fill up bins, but as a glorious opportunity.
A new kind of harvest
There are many groups who are intercepting this perfectly good food from being thrown away, and who are keen to highlight the issues around why businesses deem it necessary to bin edible foods. It is with this in mind that the Brighton-based Food Waste Collective organised the Surplus Harvest Feast, a huge extravaganza of surplus food, cooked up and served for free to the public with great ceremony and celebration during last weekend’s community arts festival, the Lantern Fayre.
The idea of the event was to raise awareness of the large amount of surplus food which exists in Brighton and Hove alone. As the Feast’s co-ordinator, Debbie Hardy, pointed out, with just a handful of volunteers collecting surplus fruit, vegetables, and dry grains and beans we managed to redirect just under half a tonne of ingredients into around 1200 servings of hot, tasty meals (8).
The day was bright and sunny and the word had clearly got around. As volunteers scurried around inside the tent making last-minute cooking preparations, locating aprons and ladling meals into serving-pots, interested festival-goers began crowding in so thickly that the stewards had to intervene to hold them back. The Great Serving Up was scheduled for 2pm, and at 1.45pm the queue was already stretching out far beyond the food tent’s confines; snaking away across the Level park, and taking up half of the space of the festival. Clearly, the attraction of a free meal was one which was too good to miss.
One of my favourite aspects of the Feast is the idea of so many people all eating the same food at the same time. The importance of sharing and appreciating food is something which may get somewhat forgotten in our culture; one reason perhaps why people do not mind throwing it away, because they do not place as much significance on it as they could. In her book Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature, Jules Pretty suggests that it is this appreciation and gratitude which is needed in order to revive our sense of community and re-think our global food networks towards ones of abundance for everyone (7).
A very simple way to do this is to share a meal with someone; it does not matter who. When we share food we are all connecting to the same primal energy; a fact which we may not consciously notice but which almost invariably affects us both physically and mentally. When we extrapolate this to sharing a meal with hundreds of others, the effects can be quite profound. I certainly felt more of a deep appreciation for the food from the Feast which I ate yesterday knowing how many other happy bellies were being sustained by the exact same fare as mine. The sensation is quite magical.
The effect which the Feast had on each individual who partook of the food served at the Lantern Fayre can probably never be fully known, but it is clear that the reverberations of this action are spreading in many directions. I spoke to a few people briefly about their take on the Feast, with many positive reactions. A large proportion were very keen to get involved with the Food Waste Collective and help with future actions, while some had their own ideas for new creative ways to highlight food surplus and at the same time fulfil the deep human need we have to connect with each other and to the natural world which sustains us. And, perhaps even more importantly, everyone who I spoke to was enjoying the food itself!
It is not only the Food Waste Collective who create such dynamic and interactive events as these. All over the world, groups and individuals are helping to re-dress the balance of food poverty vs. food waste, not by lamenting the statistics or by condemning producers or consumers, but using much more positive and creative methods. One example is the UK-based organisation This is Rubbish, who create arts installations and plays around the theme of food waste. At the moment they are touring around with their new Scratch Feast play; next showing this weekend in London. For more information, see (9).
The Surplus Harvest Feast and the Scratch Feast are just two examples of how we can bring to light just how much abundance there is here in the UK, and how, with just a little imagination, we can share this abundance out beautifully and resourcefully. There are many, many other ways in which we can address this. The only limit is our imagination. Ideas, anyone?
- Haworth, Charlotte, 2014. ‘The Importance of Eating Food’. Permaculture News, 26/09/14. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/09/26/importance-eating-food/ – retrieved 06/10/14
- People and the Planet, 2014. ‘The world comes to town.’ http://www.peopleandtheplanet.com/index.html@lid=26729§ion=40&topic=44.html – retrieved 05/10/4
- Reece, A, 2014. “Supermarkets to publish food waste data”. Resource, 29/01/14. http://resource.co/business/article/supermarkets-publish-food-waste-data – retrieved 23/09/14
- Sayid, R, 2014. “Seven supermarket chains including Tesco and Asda vow to reveal how much they bin each year”. Daily Mail, 30/01/14. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/supermarket-waste-seven-chains-including-3092194 – retrieved 23/09/14
- Institute of Mechanical Engineers, 2013. “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not.” IMECHE: London. Available as a PDF here: http://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/reports/Global_Food_Report.pdf
- Love Food Hate Waste, 2014. ‘UK Food Waste Statistics’. http://england.lovefoodhatewaste.com/node/2472 – retrieved 05/10/4
- Pretty, Jules, 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Earthscan: Oxford
- Interview with Debbie Hardy, 06/10/14.
- This is Rubbish, 2014. ‘Scratch Feasts this October’. http://www.thisisrubbish.org.uk/theatrical-scratch-feasts-this-october/ – retrieved 06/10/14