The United States government wants to reduce their food waste by half by 2030:
the U.S. federal government will be forming a new partnership with a group of charitable and faith-based organizations, private sector organizations, and local, state and tribal governments. It’s expected that the efforts stemming from this partnership will greatly improve overall food security and help conserve the U.S.’s natural resources.
These government-industry partnerships have existed before in less formal contexts, such as that between General Mills and the USDA in 2013.
On the face of it, this seems like a doubly-benevolent strategy that simultaneously reduces food waste—a serious problem in the global food system—and food insecurity, an equally nefarious issue of social justice. There are two major issues with these schemes, as I see it. The first is that it reifies social inequalities. The second is that it justifies inaction in actually addressing the causes of food insecurity.
As I have argued in the past, the implication of these types of initiatives is that there is class of food-secure people for whom this food is not suitable, but another class for whom it is. This type of class-making behaviour is harmful and dehumanizing to those whom it marginalizes. The act of donating product overruns (arbitrarily defined by marketing), out-of-spec, or near-expiry food to those who are food-insecure reinforces an understanding of those experiencing food insecurity as an underclass who can be treated as a depository for our detritus. This food is waste according to we who are not food-insecure as we expect a standard that doesn’t apply to the underclass who are food-insecure.
In reality, if the food is good enough for those who experience food-insecurity, then there is absolutely no reason it shouldn’t be good enough for us. Put another way: arbitrary distinctions in quality should not decide what and when we donate food. We—or more importantly, processors and retailers— should re-think what is perceived as acceptable, and moreover, if we assume that donating food is a meaningful solution to food insecurity, we should be donating food that comes from this now-broadened category of what is acceptable for consumption by all people regardless of their social standing. Food-insecure people should never be the depositories for our rejecta. We need to question every instance where something is deemed unacceptable for the market, but acceptable for some other class of citizenry.
We should ensure that our “donations” are not just a form of disposal. Donations should take place in response to need and demand, and not when there is a glut of out-of-spec cereal or mis-labeled cheese.
The scheduling of donations around defects and excess leads to my second point: schemes such as this justify political inaction in dealing with hunger. These schemes do not “greatly improve overall food security”, as the proponents claim. There is growing demand for food banks in most parts of the world, including here in Canada, according to the FAO. Filling the supply/demand gap for products at food banks by donating more does not resolve food-insecurity. Reducing the need for food banks, reducing the number of visits to food banks, and reducing the inequalities that reproduce this need does reduce food insecurity.
These schemes perpetuate and reproduce the structural issues that result in food-insecurity. Recalling Reagan-era voluntarism, and emblematic of broader neoliberal politics that pervades most developed countries, food banks and other such schemes offload responsibility for food insecurity to civic groups, industry, and the food insecure themselves. The fact that the scheme discussed in the quoted article is a government-industry partnership to support non-profit/civic groups makes plain the neoliberal politics behind the scheme. Offloading responsibility to industry and civic groups ultimately absolves government from taking direct action in addressing food insecurity and inequality in general.
More donations, more industry participation, more food banks are neither the solution to the waste problem, nor the food security issue. We need to re-think how food is produced in the globalized food system and hospitality sectors such that so much waste is produced. We need to question the arbitrary quality standards throughout production, retail, and consumption that produce food fit only for a second-class. We need to rethink marketing strategies that mean overruns of seasonal products constitute a waste that needs avoiding in the first place. We need to target inequality directly and not use a donation bandaid to fulfill corporate social responsibility obligations and support government claims to mitigating food insecurity.