“… what remains when the good, fruitful, valuable, nourishing and useful has been taken […] the tat, the lowly that has sunk to the depth of a value system”.Scanlan, 2005
As Scalan posits, and as I explore in the Longer read What is food waste?, waste is simply something that has lost value to us. It is ‘matter out of place’ and no longer holds that what we once perceived as desirable. Truly understanding food waste therefore means understanding the ‘value systems’ around food. With this insight, we can find ways of injecting more value into foods or parts of food we find undesirable and prevent or even halt its journey into the bin.
Food is personal
For this longer read, I am using material from interviews I conducted for my masters thesis on food waste from summer 2019. I went to the homes of 10 participants, whereby we discussed how they used their fridges in daily life. Through these, I found that the value of food was deeply linked to food waste.
Interviewing people in their homes may seem a bit intimate, intruding even, but that suited the study well because food is extremely personal. Not only is it literally the sustenance that keeps us alive, but it also allows us to forge meaningful connections with other people and is a central focus of traditions and celebrations. We associate food vividly with different times and places, and it even contributes to the construction of our own identities.
They way food plays into these significant experiences affects the value we give it, and thus, how much of it we waste.
Although my research was limited, I found five ways in which food was given more value.
- When it is made for a special occasion
- When it comes from someone special
- When it comes from somewhere special
- When it tastes really good
- When it comes at a higher price
Some of these overlap and of course, some waste happens even if we really value food, for example due to unforeseen circumstances. I hope to delve into this more deeply in the future, but for now we will focus on how values play out when food practices are not disrupted by other pressures.
1) Special occasion
My interviewees were more likely to value food, and therefore reduce the risk of wasting it, if it was produced for a celebration or meaningful event. On interviewee explained that during the winter holidays, their family makes a huge batch of matzo ball soup as part of the celebrations. Despite the large quantity of food made, it never gets wasted. The meal is precious, and it would be unheard of to throw some of it away.
For another interviewee, the corn harvest back home was an important tradition, and family and neighbours would get together to unsheathe corn and cook it up in various delicious ways. The social practices around the food, as well as the food itself, increased its value in this respect.
The act of sharing food can greatly reduce the risk of food waste, and not just within households during a special occasion – think the food sharing app Olio, which helps neighbours to share food. However, Evans (2014) found that sharing food comes with some social anxieties, for example the worry that others will not like your cooking or judge you for your tastes. Food sharing during special occasions may diminish these anxieties, as the types of food prepared is often pre-determined by tradition.
The hypothesis that less food is wasted when made for a special occasion may explain why vegetables are the most wasted food group. They rarely take centre-stage in important dishes, and often serve as side-dishes or an accompaniment to the main event. For instance, in the UK, traditional meals like the Sunday roast and Christmas dinner feature meat as the centrepiece, with the vegetables overshadowed and more likely to be left over.
2) Special person
Interviewees tended to waste food less if it came from someone important to them. The matzo ball soup recipe mentioned above came from a recipe that had been handed down from a great-great-grandmother. The meal inherited even more value because of the person involved in making it was regarded in high esteem.
Knowing the person who sells your food also makes the food in question more valuable. One interviewee got to know their local fruit and veg stall owner and the people that came to deliver the goods. As a result, the food garnered more positive social associations for them, and went up in value.
Importantly, I found that this special person could be the interviewees themselves. Participants that grew some food themselves also held that food in higher regard, but furthermore, if the food bought reinforced the person’s identity or image of themselves, it held more value. One participant, the contributor of this food waste story, felt a lot more freedom after her divorce, and her food choices reflected this freedom. The meals she made held more value to her as a result, and she only wasted it in unforeseen circumstances.
In contrast, another participant described how they bought some alternatives to meat to have for lunch with a vegetarian friend. However, their plans changed and the friend was no longer able to make the lunch. As the interviewee did not consider themselves a vegetarian, these food items did not hold much value to them, and eventually went to waste in their fridge.
3) Special place
Where food comes from also influences the value assigned to it. In one interview, a participant revealed that they had begun buying food from local, independent grocers and specialist food stores, and spoke about how this made the food feel more personal and special. They compared this to when they bought food from supermarkets, and said they would not feel as bad throwing food away from big chains as they would if it came from the local grocer.
This disassociation with food that comes from giant supermarkets is well documented in Shelf Life (Humphrey, 1998) which found that they ‘yielded anchorless shoppers who had no feeling of identity with the massive stores they shopped in’. Humphrey’s research subjects spoke of trying to spend as little time in the supermarket at possible. In contrast, my interviewee thoroughly enjoyed the process of shopping in smaller stores and scheduled in a good chunk of their day once a week to do so.
Another interviewee reminisced about being given a vegan blueberry pie from a farmer’s market as a treat. Buying food from farmer’s markets and local stores often contributes to the value of food, as it gives us a sense of being closer to where the food was grown. In Hamburger in Paradise (Fresco, 2015), the author remarks: ‘Food is our most intimate way of interacting with nature’. We are reminded of this more vividly at outdoor farmers markets than within vast superstores. Many advertising campaigns feature farms and people growing food to sell this idea for their food product and compensate for the supermarket in which most people will buy it.
A few interviewees also held higher regard for food if it reminded them of home. One person had just returned from a trip to her home country in Asia and brought various herbs and fruit back. She considered this food higher quality than what the UK could provide, and they had their own special places in the fridge to themselves. She took a lot of pride showing them to me and it was clear her fondness towards them was associated with their place of origin.
4) Special taste
When reading academia about food waste, I found that many researchers neglect this aspect of food when exploring reasons behind food waste. I am unsure whether this is because they take it as obvious, or they do not think personal taste is academic enough to include in research.
In any case, the likelihood is that if we really enjoy eating something, we are less likely to let it go to waste. Interestingly, studies have shown that things like fast food, takeaways and ready meals rarely get left over or go in the bin. Sadly, these contain more sugar, salt, and fats, and often wrapped in plastic and other single-use materials. On the other hand, vegetables are not as exciting to eat as many other foods, and this helps explain why they are the most wasted food group.
Interestingly, Rathje and Murphy (2001) demonstrate that if we are unfamiliar with some types of food, it is more likely to go to waste. So commonplace is this phenomenon that they derived a ‘First Principle of Food Waste: The more repetitive your diet – the more you eat the same things day after day – the less food you waste.’ (Italics in original).
This rang true for my study. A couple of my interviewees bought ingredients to try out new recipes, but one accidentally forgot to make it while eating their usual food that week, and the ingredients went off. Another did not like the new recipe as much as they thought, and ate other food instead of the leftovers of the experiment in the following days. We tend to fall back on our old favourites when it comes to which meal we prefer to eat. Sometimes a particular ingredient is bought for a specific recipe, but we are not sure how to use it in other dishes, and it is neglected.
5) Special price
Unsurprisingly, food tended to be valued more if it cost more to acquire. Lots of studies found that financial incentives are a key concern with waste, and campaigns such as Love Food, Hate Waste focus on the monetary cost of food waste to try and encourage people to waste less.
One interviewee spoke of a favourite butcher they would go to for some good cuts of meat, and insisted that this kind of food would never go to waste. Price and quality were linked here, which adds to the value of the food item. Again, foods that are wasted often like bread, potatoes and vegetables tend to be lower in price, and therefore may be perceived as less valuable and more acceptable to throw away. I once asked a colleague who was an expert in waste at an old job why she thought people wasted food so much, and she said “because it is cheap!”
But food is not cheap for everyone, and some studies have looked at whether food is wasted less in households of lower income. Results are currently inconclusive, and it may in fact be the opposite, as people may buy in bulk if it comes out cheaper, and then are unable to finish all the food before it goes off. Moreover, Porpino et al (2015) found that in lower income households in Brazil, surplus food was often bought to alleviate the ‘identification of being poor’.
The price of the food item may transcend monetary value. Whenever they bought meat or fish, one of my interviewees made sure it was eaten in its entirety. The reasoning was that an animal had died to produce this food, and it would be unacceptable for that sacrifice to go to waste.
How understanding value can help prevent food waste
Looking at the different ways in which food is given value can assist in finding solutions to food waste. Some are out of our hands; it would be unrealistic to try and make every meal a special occasion. It would also be wrong to suggest making food more expensive, as this would make life harder for households on lower incomes.
One solution of preventing food waste is to instil further value into parts of food where there was none. That is what the Tips and tricks part of the blog is about, but there could be wider social and material changes that help us transform our traditional food waste into something valuable with little effort from us. For instance, many studies revealed a prejudice against ‘leftovers’, and here a simple language change could help. You would be less likely to throw away a ‘bonus meal’ than ‘what is left over’.
Quite an obvious change could be to move away from the supermarket model of food consumption. Buying food from more ‘special places’ like independent grocers and farmer’s markets seems like a promising solution, if they could be made accessible for all communities and all incomes. Not only do customers seem to have a closer connection to the food they buy, there also seems to be an array of positive social associations with these types of vendors, which further increases the food’s value.
Another key point is that the ‘value system’ also depends on the tools that are available to us. Before fridges, for example, we would not be able to preserve food for long, and it would have lost its ‘value’ (i.e. edibility) much sooner. Fridges gave perishable food value that lasted longer. I believe another aspect of preventing food waste is creating technologies that provide new avenues for what we currently perceive as food waste to go down, instead of into the bin. What if everyone had a device that turned the ends of vegetables instantly into stock? Or orange peel into candied orange? Or off milk into yogurt or cheese?
Ultimately, food is personal, and not every solution will fit every person, nor every culture or nation. But future studies must take into account the value systems of their research subjects if they are to understand the ‘why’ behind the discarding of food, and the social and material barriers they face when trying to prevent it.
Have I missed any value systems of food that you can think of? What would other solutions to delay or halt food’s journey into waste look like? Share your story here.
Evans, D., 2014. Food Waste: Home Consumption, Material Culture and Everyday Life. London: Bloomsbury.
Fresco, L. O., 2015. Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories behind the Food We Eat. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Humphery, K., 1998. Shelf Life: Supermarkets and the Changing Cultures of Consumption. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Porpino, G., Parente, J. and Wansink, B., 2015. Food waste paradox: antecedents of food disposal in low income households. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 39. pp. 619-629.
Rathje, W. and Murphy, C., 2001. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. New York: HarperCollins.
Scanlan, J., 2005. On Garbage. London: Reaktion Books.