Thursday, 10 July 2008

Food waste on the agenda

By Emma Head

Food waste is on the news agenda: Gordon Brown wants to ensure that households stop wasting food at a time when food prices are on the increase. Around 18% of food bought by British households is estimated to end up in the bin rather than eaten. This is not the first time a government has urged the public to be more thoughtful over food consumption. During the second world war posters urged people to make use of leftovers.

In the current fight against food waste, BOGOFs (buy one get one free offers) and 3 for 2s are being seen as a particular problem. This is a concern that has been raised by Steve Webb, Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary and a feature in the Guardian recommends avoiding such offers as one tactic to cut down on food waste.

A few years ago I interviewed a young woman called Angela, who lived with her two year old daughter in a deprived area of a large city. I asked her to talk about where she did her food shopping and how she found managing her household budget. She told me she didn't really do a big food shop, as she didn't have enough money for this. In fact, she often missed meals as she had to prioritise feeding her daughter. Studies of families living through hard times throughout the twentieth century have tended to find that when money is tight family members usual get fed in the following order - father, children, mother. Sometimes Vicky got help with her food shopping from her Grandmother, who would look out for offers in the supermarket and on a weekly basis would bring her the 'free' items. So for Vicky, 3 for 2s and BOGOFs weren't about waste or global food shortages but had other meanings. They gave a reason for her grandmother to visit her and broke up the monotony of her day; they showed her that her Grandmother was thinking about her and her daughter; and they provided something unexpected to eat in a diet that didn't vary much.

Food is being wasted on a massive scale, but we need to ensure that any strategies to try and cut down on wastage don’t impact too heavily on those who are already struggling to feed themselves and their families adequately.

Emma Head is Lecturer in Sociology at Keele University. Her research explores lone parenting, work (paid and unpaid) care and motherhood, especially in the contexts of poverty, inequality and social exclusion. She teaches modules on the Sociology of Work and Research Methods.

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