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Food waste in the age of hunger

Francine Crimmins |  23 February 2017


This week the United Nations announced that more than 20 million people across four African countries face starvation in the coming months. UN Chief Secretary Antonio Guterres says there are currently four famine alerts including Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

Sudanese childThe UN also told the news conference they had managed to raise just $90 million of the $4.4 billion needed 'by the end of March to avert a catastrophe'. Only the Somalian famine alert is caused by drought, while the remaining are classified as 'man-made food crises' due to conflict.

As the UN World Food Program struggles to feed the starving, they are also reminding people that where there is great need in the world, there is often great waste. In Australia, the Department of Environment and Energy estimates food waste is costing households $8 billion every year. This is twice what the UN predicts it needs to cease a famine in four nations.

What makes us so flippant towards the food on our tables? Some studies into culture suggest our attitude comes from the knowledge everything can be replaced quite easily. We don't think about recycling food because we know more food is never far away.

It's rare that we go to the shops and find out something is sold out. And if it never sells out, it must mean some is thrown out. Indeed bakeries, butchers and restaurants all commit masses of food to the rubbish bin every day. While some businesses give their leftovers to programs like Foodbank, there often is just too much food being produced, too quickly.

It's quite easy to negate the differences between food waste in Australia and its effect on food shortages elsewhere. It's easy to look at famine as something totally foreign and unrelated to our everyday cooking. This separation of sympathy is something the UN food program works tirelessly to bridge.

Famine is just one underlying factor of global injustice, but is one of the largest inhibitors to human progress. If food is an enabler in the world, then having access to it is a privilege. This privilege is opening our cupboards or fridges to a plethora of grocery items.

This privilege is reflected through our ability to watch TV shows where food can be judged as 'not good enough' based purely on 'presentation'. The ease in which we can produce food and throw it away reflects this inequality between ourselves and the poorest people in the world.


"If we don't achieve the world development goals in the next 15 years, it won't be because we didn't know enough, it will be because the world thought something else was more important."


Reducing food waste in our everyday lives is easier said than done. It's not as simple as eating the food in front of us. It's about starting to view food as a valuable resource.

There's a range of initiatives individuals and big companies are taking to reduce mass food waste. One of my favourites is the 'food waste restaurants' that are taking off around the world. These fine dining experiences offer a different menu to their customers every night with one simple twist — everything they serve up is food from supermarkets that was going to be thrown out. It's not only a genius business plan, it also aims to get people to think about trying to buy food based on the closest expiry dates.

Last year when I was a student journalist in the UN City in Copenhagen I attended a meeting on food security with Anne Poulsen, head of the UN Food Program in Scandinavia. She said one of the biggest issues they face is people's perception that nothing is happening in crisis zones. That perception is often due to a lack of media coverage, or in some cases, irresponsible media coverage. In the past, journalists have broken into famine area storerooms where the UN was holding bags of flour, waiting for more supplies to arrive. The next day the papers accused the Food Program of hoarding food from the starving. The UN argued they could hardly feed thousands of malnourished people with bags of flour.

Polusen also said that we cannot claim today that we just don't know how to fix the situation of world hunger. The UN has 17 sustainable development goals they plan to achieve in the next two decades. The first is to alleviate poverty and the second is to eradicate hunger. Poulsen said if we don't achieve the world development goals in the next 15 years, it won't be because we didn't know enough, it will be because the world thought something else was more important.


Francine CrimminsFrancine Crimmins is studying a double degree of Journalism and Creative Intelligence & Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney. She is on twitter as @frankiecrimmins. Francine is the recipient of Eureka Street's Margaret Dooley Fellowship for Young Writers.

Image source: UNICEF



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Submitted comments

I still remember the days when rationing of food and many other things was still in force. I still find it difficult to throw any food away. My children won't touch anything that has passed its use by date but use by dates can be deceptive. Should I throw away a packet of flour or rice that has been properly stored simply because a company has chosen twelve months after packaging as the use by date? Perhaps we should learn to understand and conserve some of the products we use.

Margaret McDonald 27 February 2017

Hi Margaret, Learning more about the food we are eating and when we can eat it definitely has a major part to play. You make an interesting point on how we should learn more about conserving food. Most products have used by dates on them, even some brands of tissues and toilet paper. Of course, we would never think to throw them out because it's still useful and we know toilet tissues are fine. Perhaps we can also change the way we view food. Of course, many things are unsafe to eat past the used by date but, there are some things that can be prepared still or even frozen for later even when the used by date has passed. Education as you have mentioned may be the most powerful tool to achieve this.

Francine Crimmins 27 February 2017

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