Last week saw the celebration, observed in the USA and by many others around the world as well, of Thanksgiving: a festival to observe the importance of giving thanks for one’s food, marked usually with a feast, presumably as with extra food we can be extra grateful.
The festival has its roots in the end of harvest celebrations of many Native American tribes and indeed most cultures around the world, who would usually hold feasts at this time of year to thank the earth and the plants and animals for providing for them, and continuing to provide for them (see for example 1). This seems an important thing to remember and to celebrate, although it should not necessarily be only once a year. While it is appropriate to be aware of the changing of the seasons and give thanks for autumn’s abundance in preparation for the cold scarcity of winter, food is something which most of us eat every day, so why should we not celebrate this at every mouthful?
Perhaps one reason why there is currently so much food waste in the world is that many in our modern culture are forgetting this key fact: that food is something we can be joyous about, and not only at thanksgiving. If this is forgotten, then the celebration may as well not have happened. In a way it is nice that the Thanksgiving festival is still acknowledged in a culture which could be seen from some angles to be rather shallow and unfeeling. However, when we look at statistics like the fact that every year, American families throw away around one third of perfectly good food (2), or that every Thanksgiving the food waste figures raise drastically (2), then it seems that we have a little way to go before we can really be said to be giving thanks.
In 2012 a report estimated that every Thanksgiving, “$282 million worth of perfectly edible meat will be wasted, enough to feed each American household in the country 11 additional servings” (3).
This phenomenon does not relate only to food; and it is not characteristic of only the USA either. In the UK in 2012 again (for some reason I cannot find more recent figures; hopefully a sign we are getting less wasteful?) a report estimated that over Christmas we throw away 2m turkeys, 5m Christmas puddings and 74m mince pies (4).
Such figures seem to suggest that we need a little more encouragement of being thankful, because after all, as Dana Gunders of environmental research group the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) points out, “part of being thankful is not wasting food” (2).
Many people are doing something to facilitate this change in attitude. Last week saw the Brighton-based Food Waste Collective’s winter food re-distribution event, ‘Good Food for Good Causes’, during which time we repacked and redistributed just under 2 tonnes of donated food to around 30 charities and community groups from all over the city. The event was our first in the Brighton Open Market, which turned out to be a fantastically public venue and a good site for showcasing the Food Waste Collective to members of the public, as well as helping raise awareness of our partners, such as Plan Zheroes (5), The Gleaning Network (6), Food Warriors (7) and The Real Junk Food Project (8).
This latter group are just launching in Brighton and their aim is to create a full-time café which uses only surplus food to cook tasty and cheap meals for anyone who cares to come by. I went along to help out at their first ever event, where they were catering for Theatre Uncut’s (9) series of plays on themes of social change. The first night of the Theatre Uncut shows was last Thursday which as it happens was also Thanksgiving. As we served out around 100 delicious servings of surplus dinner, the theatre-goers really had something to be grateful for. Less food waste in the city and more food available; something we can all say thanks to!
An important way in which we can help to bring this message to the public is through participative education. Talking to people and finding out their perspective as well as sharing ours is much more effective than telling them what to do, and it was with this in mind that I helped out with a Love Food Hate Waste stall outside a supermarket in Brighton and Hove, during which time we shared tips on cutting down on festive waste as well as listening to others’ feelings on these issues.
A question of logistics
The Real Junk Food Project’s launch was so successful that on the first night we managed to serve out all the food that was cooked that day. A great response, but one which elicited mild panic, as we were doing the catering for the same event on Friday evening as well. This is where the idea of abundance suddenly got really interesting. Around four or five core food-finders put out various feelers, using mainly social media and connections as well as contacting donors who we already knew about. No one was expecting to get enough food for Friday’s event.
So it was somewhat of a surprise when it came to the end of Friday night and the theatre-goers began rolling out of the venue (an old market, as it happened), protesting that they could not possibly take any more soup. We had managed to collect not only enough food to feed everyone; we had plenty to spare and more besides!
While this was in itself a thing to be celebrated, swift action needed to be taken before we became the very thing which the Real Junk Food Project was set up to alleviate: wasters. But who would take around thirty servings of hot soup on a Friday night? Homeless shelters and refuge centres were quickly contacted; with the replies that cooked food could not be accepted as it is difficult to tell what is in it. For some moments, then, we were stumped; until one volunteer had the bright idea of calling some friends who lived nearby and asking them to bring Tupperware. In this way we managed to shift most of the surplus; the remainder making its way to street people we met on the way home, as well as to our own freezers.
Thanksgiving: all year round
The experience with The Real Junk Food Project showed how, when one trusts in abundance, it can proliferate, sometimes a little too wildly. With a little ingenuity (and a lot of plastic containers!), however, it seems possible to always utilise what we have, and to share in the celebration of the abundance of our world.
Right now we are living in times of great excess; this should not necessarily be a cause for concern. When the excess is used correctly and respectfully, we can turn waste into something wonderful. Of course, it would be better if we if not create so much waste in the first place, and perhaps as we become more aware of the significance of what we eat this will surely lessen.
- Harvest Festival, 2014. ‘Harvest Festivals from around the world’. http://www.harvestfestivals.net/harvestfestivals.htm – retrieved 1/12/14
- Smith, M, 2012. ‘Here’s how much food you’re going to waste on Thanksgiving’. Vice News, 26/11/14. https://news.vice.com/article/heres-how-much-food-youre-going-to-waste-on-thanksgiving – retrieved 1/12/14
- Zerbe, L, 2012. ‘The worst turkey statistic ever’. Rodale News, 16/11/12. http://www.rodalenews.com/food-waste-facts – retrieved 1/12/14
- Smithers, R, 2012. ‘It’s time to cut the obscene amount of Christmas waste’. Guardian, 20/12/12. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2012/dec/20/obscene-amount-christmas-food-waste – retrieved 1/12/14
- Plan Zheroes, 2014. ‘The Idea’. http://www.planzheroes.org/ – retrieved 1/12/14
- Feedbback UK, 2014. ‘Gleaning Network’. http://feedbackglobal.org/campaigns/gleaning-network/ – retrieved 1/12/14
- Facebook, 2014. ‘Food Warriors!!’ https://www.facebook.com/groups/foodwarriors/?fref=ts – retrieved 1/12/14
- Facebook, 2014. ‘The Real Junk Food Project Brighton’. https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Real-Junk-Food-Project-Brighton/246123485595051?fref=ts – retrieved 1/12/14
- Brighton Theatre Uncut, 2014. ‘About’. https://brightontheatreuncut.wordpress.com/ – retrieved 1/12/14