Why food waste is a feminist issue

I want to offer two disclaimers for this blog: firstly, it is entirely heteronormative and cis-centric. Food waste studies have only recently begun factoring in gender at all, let alone all the complexities and multifaceted experiences that come with gender and sexuality. Frustratingly there is also insufficient research into the intersection of race, class and disability in regards to food waste. I hope to research these subjects myself one day. And on the chosen image, I want to acknowledge that not all women have vulvas, and not all vulva-owners are women!

Secondly: a trigger warning, as there are discussions of domestic abuse in the third section.

Why is food waste a feminist issue? Food waste has huge implications for the planet, and we need to start thinking outside the box for successful solutions. I often speak of “system change” to tackle food waste, but this is not just about changes in policy, objects and models of consumption; I also mean social systems, like the patriarchy, whereby men have more power in society than women.

There is not yet a lot of research into the link between gender and food waste, and for International Women’s Day 2021, I explore three reasons why gendered power imbalances in society and household lead to food waste. In other words, how does the patriarchy make us waste more food?

1. We value women’s food work less than men’s

To start off with, I have written previously about how waste is intrinsically linked to value; the more we value something, the less likely we are to let it go to waste. I found that people valued food more if it was prepared by a ‘special person’ or for a ‘special occasion’. The following discussion on food waste and value centres on households of heterosexual couples.

There is a lot of evidence that we give more credit to men for preparing food than we do to women. Studies show that if men prepare meals, they are considered ‘doing more than their fair share’ and exceeding expectations of their role in the household [1][2]. Whereas we take the food work that women undertake for granted [13]. Therefore, we unconsciously value the food that men prepare more than the food that women prepare.

Additionally, men are more likely to prepare meals for ‘special occasions’. Christmas dinners, weekend meals like the Sunday roast [5] and barbeques [2] – meals that take centre stage are often prepared by men. These meals tend to have a meat centrepiece, and meat is also linked to the idea of masculinity [9][10]. As these events are considered ‘special’, we value the food associated with them a lot more. This even includes the leftovers from the meals. Men also tend to prepare non-main meals and snacks [1], which do not generate a lot of waste.

On the other hand, women are usually responsible for the day-to-day meals for the household [2], which hold a lot less unconscious value. It therefore feels less wasteful to throw these meals away. In an ideal world, the division of labour would be equal. For now, as women tend to do the most food work, it is important to understand the social dynamics and pressures women face in order to understand situations that lead to food waste [6].

2. Gender roles: women as the “good provider” and other social conditioning

Women have historically been viewed as the ‘care-givers’ of the household, and even now, women do sixteen hours of domestic work per week, compared to six for men [3]. These gendered roles exert pressure on women to fulfil certain expectations around the home, including food work.

Much research has been done on the ‘good provider’ or ‘good mother’ identity and its link to food waste [11][12][16][18]. A ‘good provider’ wants to make sure that their family not only has enough to eat, but a variety of delicious meals that they enjoy and that brings them ample nourishment. This results in food waste for a number of reasons.

A ‘good provider’ feels pressure to feed their family with ‘healthy’ foods. Women tend to buy more fresh fruit and vegetables than men [17] with the intention of consolidating the ‘good provider’ identity and feel guilty when buying pre-prepared or frozen food [8]. One of my own research participants talked about wanting to ‘get vegetables into’ her family. However, often more fresh produce is purchased than ends up being eaten [11][12]. This happens with all food, not just fruits and vegetables; in one study, mothers ‘recurrently stated that it is better to make more – rather than not enough – food’ [16].

Moreover, leftovers are disregarded and seen as second-tier to food that is prepared ‘fresh’ [14][15][18]. At the same time, women feel pressure to make different meals for their families every day [8] and also cook from scratch rather than re-serve something or grab something from the freezer [16]. All of these together mean that women feel the need to continually serve up fresh, new meals rather than use up leftovers and risk boring their household with a meal they had recently eaten. One of my participants called herself a ‘bad wife’ because she does not always plan meals.

Another interesting study showed that women are more likely to throw away food from ‘disgust’ [19]. However, the authors unfortunately put this down to ‘their role as offspring carriers’, implying that the presence of a uterus automatically results in having higher levels of disgust. A better explanation is that women are conditioned from a young age to reject ‘dirty’ activities; girls are more likely to be admonished if they get muddy, play outside, explore etc., which sadly leads to weaker immune systems [20]. This reflects the propensity to have higher levels of disgust with food. Strangely, the previous authors admit that that ‘though the ability to experience disgust is innate, the disgust cues most likely are learned during childhood and adolescence’, yet do not make the logical step towards gendered conditioning in childhood [19].

3. Explicit power imbalances: abuse and anxiety

In extreme cases, food waste occurs from instances of domestic abuse and explicit power imbalances between men and women in the household. The relationship between food and gender is significant, because ‘cooking and serving food in particular ways […] signal a wife’s acceptance of a subservient domestic role and deference to her husband’s wishes. In these situations, men insist on enforcing exaggerated relations of dominance and subordination within the family’ [2]. Due to this, ‘many incidents of domestic violence are triggered by men’s complaints about the preparation and service of meals’ [2].

One piece of research reported that ‘husbands had thrown food at [their wives] if it hadn’t met with their approval’ [1]. Another recent study observed that a female participant had to buy and prepare back-up meals in case her husband ‘vetoed’ her chosen ingredients or decided he did not care for what she prepared. He sometimes even left the house to eat out if the meal did not meet his tastes [8]. A substantial amount of food is wasted as a result of this explicit enforcement of gendered power abuse.

Less explicit, but equally real is the element of anxiety in preparing meals for a male household member who imposes subordination. In one of the above studies, a participant was very anxious about judgements of her cooking because her husband and brother would always expect her to serve them, and always jeered at whatever she made. She said: ‘Maybe that’s why I still don’t like cooking, because I know that every time I serve something on the table I’m going to be judged and criticised, and you know, “That tastes awful.”’ [2]. This anxiety was present in one of my own research participants in 2019:

‘when I lived with my ex I’d be like, “Oh, if I make this thing, what if it’s awful”, like he was quite annoying, so like, if he hated something, you know, he wouldn’t just be like “Ah, never mind”, he’d like, go on and on and on about it for ages [laughs] so it was like, so I was always a bit like, “Oh, I don’t want to cook”, I felt a bit paralysed by being shy’.

As a result of this anxiety, my participant often ordered food instead of making something from the ingredients she had at home, resulting in those items going to waste. On the other hand, after her divorce, she felt a lot less pressure: ‘I’m like, ah I’ll just throw this tomato puree in this pasta and a few veg, like, I don’t care’. The aforementioned research found the same: after getting divorce, a female participant said that ‘her routine became “very simple” […] “you know, being married, you’re just a slave to the kitchen. And once I got out of that, I just had more choices. I mean, I had more flexibility in what I could and couldn’t do”’ [2]. Less food was wasted in my participant’s case, as she did not feel the pressure to make meals that met her husband’s approval, and she had more autonomy in her lifestyle.

Gender equality will help reduce food waste

Food waste within the patriarchy is a double-edged sword: women currently do most of the food work in households, and yet we do not put enough value on that work. The gender roles women are conditioned to play result in excess food being bought, prepared and wasted, and the gendered power dynamics in households mean that food waste occurs through domestic abuse and anxiety.

This is evidence that individual behaviour change cannot be the core solution to food waste, without acknowledging the social context in which individuals operate. On a related note, since women currently do most of the country’s food work, any campaigns that urge individuals to reduce their food waste are implicitly targeting women [4]. This is one reason why I am keen to pivot the conversation towards systemic changes rather than behaviour changes; putting the burden on ‘consumers’ inadvertently puts further burden on women. And we have enough to worry about already.

Happy International Women’s Day! Please share this blog if you found it interesting, and please follow on Instagram!

References

[1] Charles, N. and Kerr, M., (1988). Women, Food and Families. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[2] Devault, M. L., (1991). Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] McMunn A., Bird L., Webb E., Sacker A., (2020). Gender Divisions of Paid and Unpaid Work in Contemporary UK Couples. Work, Employment and Society, 34(2). pp. 155-173.

[4] Fraser, C. and Parizeau, K., (2019). Waste management as foodwork: A feminist food studies approach to household food waste. Canadian Food Studies, 5(1). pp. 39–62.

[5] Fresco, L. O., (2015). Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories behind the Food We Eat. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[6] Brady, J., Gingras, J., and Power, E., (2012). Still hungry: A feminist perspective on food, foodwork, the body, and food studies. In M. Koc, J. Sumner, & A. Winson (Eds.), Critical perspectives in food studies, pp. 122–135. Don Mills: Oxford University Press Canada.

[7] Waitt, G. and Philips, C., 2016. Food waste and domestic refrigeration: a visceral and material approach. Social & Cultural Geography, 17(3). pp. 359-379.

[8] Evans, D., 2014. Food Waste: Home Consumption, Material Culture and Everyday Life. London: Bloomsbury.

[9] Rozin, P., Hormes, J. M., Faith, M. S. and Wansink, B., (2012). Is Meat Male? A Quantitative Multimethod Framework to Establish Metaphoric Relationships. Journal of Consumer Research, 39. pp. 629-643.

[10] Rothgerber, H. (2013). Real men don’t eat (vegetable) quiche: Masculinity and the justification of meat consumption. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 14(4). pp 363–375.

[11] Graham-Rowe, E., Jessop, D. C. and Sparks, P., (2014). Identifying motivations and barriers to minimising food waste. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 84. pp. 15-23.

[12] Rathje, W. and Murphy, C., (2001). Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. New York: HarperCollins.

[13] Warde, A., (1999). Convenience food: space and timing. British Food Journal, 101(7). pp. 518-527.

[14] Hand, M. and Shove, E., (2007). Condensing Practices: Ways of Living with a Freezer. Journal of Consumer Culture, 7(1). pp. 79-104.

[15] Hebrok, M. and Boks, C., (2017). Household food waste: Drivers and potential intervention points for design – An extensive review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 151. pp. 380-392.

[16] 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

[17] Silvennoinen, K., Katajajuuri, J., Hartikainen, H., Heikkilä, L. and Reinikainen, A., (2014). Food waste and composition in Finnish households. British Food Journal, 116(6). pp. 1058-1068.

[18] do Carmo Stangherlin, I. and de Barcellos, M. D., (2018). Drivers and barriers to food waste reduction. British Food Journal, 120(10). pp. 2364-2387.

[19] Egolf, A., Siegrist, M. and Hartmann, C., (2018). How people’s food disgust sensitivity shapes their eating and food behaviour. Appetite, 12. pp. 28-36.

[20] Clough, S., 2010. Gender and the hygiene hypothesis. Social science and medicine. pp. 1-8.

Published by foodwastestories

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