Beyond the assortment of battles against food waste and food insecurity: the need for coordinated action

Blog, Quebec Hub

food wasteA petition initiated by Justin Kulik of British-Colombia, 17 years old, and signed by over 165 000 people, requested that the Canadian government force supermarkets to donate their unsold items to food banks, as so many Canadians go hungry. Justin Kulik was inspired by the 2016 French law against food waste. He went to the Parliament to meet with Lawrence MacAulay, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, on October 16th, in the context of World Food Day, to present his petition. This example is proof of a relevant, legitimate, and significant direction of action. It illustrates our point that the fight against food waste requires a broad mobilization of concerned stakeholders, from citizens to civil society organizations, to the different levels of government, to private or collective socioeconomic organizations. However, as the process undertaken by Kulik demonstrates, the different levels of government should play a vital role in the coordination of efforts against food waste and food insecurity. How should we conceive of food waste problems and food insecurity to elaborate more efficient strategies?

The fight against food waste is often associated with the battle against food insecurity. In industrialized countries, many see the donation of unsold food items as one of the solutions to the issue of food insecurity. However, we should not romanticize this solution. Although it covers environmental, social and economic objectives, it cannot eradicate hunger or food waste on its own (Schneider, 2013). Even further, from a systemic transformation point of view, the fight against food waste must first pass through more “radical” solutions such as reducing production, shortening the agro-food production chain, and then reverting to solutions such as salvaging and recycling food (Mourad, 2016). Of course, the implementation of more “radical” solutions requires changes in the practices of many actors of the whole of the agro-food chain of production and cannot be accomplished overnight.

Our most recent study on food waste was on the link between retail distribution and consumption (Audet et Brisebois, 2018) demonstrates that 57.5% of Quebec’s consumers believe that rendering the donation process more accessible for retail businesses is the ideal solution to reducing food waste. In contrast, only 8.5% think that reducing the diversity of products available on shelves is a relevant solution. “The option of rendering the donation process easy for retail stores will in no way affect consumers’ habits, while the reduction in the choice of products will require them to adapt their diet and urges depending on what the stores are offering at that time. This can explain the popularity or not of the two possibilities in question. Also, the relationship between the vast array of product choices – the abundance of products in general – and food waste in retail stores might not yet be apparent for consumers” (p.28).

From the perspective of the retailers interviewed during the research process, food donations seem to be the primary solution in place in their stores to reduce food waste. Swaffield et al. (2018), researchers interested in UK retailers’ motivations to take action against food waste, have found that while financial justifications and questions of reputation are indeed significant, the feeling of social responsibility is also one of the main motivations for retailers to find solutions against waste. They see it as a ‘moral issue’ that is inevitable in a context where poverty and environmental problems are ever-present.

Thirteen out of fourteen of our sampled retailers “have official or unofficial arrangements with community organizations for the donation of their unsold items, either on a regular or sporadic basis. However, for smaller businesses, where it is difficult to establish agreements with Moisson Montréal, who will mainly transport large volumes of goods, we note the difficulty in donating food items to organizations” (p.55). For the Montreal area, Moisson Montréal – the food bank which distributes the most goods in Canada – has implemented a food salvaging program in supermarkets, a program that is presented as a “pioneer [and] in full expansion across Quebec” (Moisson Montréal, 2017). According to the organization’s 2016-2017 annual report, 106 supermarkets of the Montreal area gave away their surplus through their program (Moisson Montréal, 2017).

For small and medium-sized businesses, “the main difficulty resides in the fact that organizations often have limited resources (time, vehicles, labor, etc.) which stops them from picking up the goods on a regular basis, or while they’re still safe for consumption. Thus, the relationships with community organizations include logistical difficulties related to the physicality of food items, as “it is always a question of 24 to 48 hours. If they aren’t transformed then, they will no longer be safe for consumption the next day” (R1). Several retailers claim to “[have] the will to do it [give to organizations], but there are organizations who have a hard time taking everything given to them” (R3)” (p.56) A potential law that would oblige retailers to give their unsold items to organizations would require, according to some of our respondents, that the government take into consideration logistical difficulties.

Even when the logistics are in place and functioning, the donated goods aren’t necessarily what the recipients had in mind. We met with several actors of Montreal organizations, in the context of a discussion group on the problem of food access, and they admitted to having seen people receive food assistance and give back certain items because they weren’t familiar with them or were not used to eating them. In this case, food donations are neither efficient against food insecurity nor food waste.

Our research shows that food waste is the result of a “social production” where different symbolic constructions interact, such as the concept of “freshness,” and objectivization mechanisms, such as expiry dates. Through the study of the junction of two components of the food production line, we were only able to show one part of the much more complex issue of food waste. Food insecurity is just as complex and overlaps with other aspects of the food system. Sure, we can encourage the donation of food items to fight against food waste. However, this should not be done without governments, and other actors within the food system, committing to putting in place a set of intersectoral measure to ensure the right to proper nutrition for all and to profoundly transform the food systems and render them more just and more sustainable.