October 16, is World Food Day. It’s a day to remember the almost 800 million people in the world who don’t have enough to eat.
Thinking about it reminds me of when I was a kid at the supper table. My parents would tell me to eat all the food on my plate because “people are starving in Africa.”
I didn’t know anything about food security or famine relief back then, but one thing I knew for certain was this: Eating all the peas on my plate wouldn’t mean people Africa would get more food.
My parents knew that, too. But that wasn’t the point. The point they were trying to make was that food was special, even sacred, and I was lucky to have so much of it—so don’t waste it.
For people of faith, treating food respectfully, and not wasting it, is a widely-held value.
In Islam, the Koran tells Muslims to “eat and drink but do not waste; for Allah does not love those who waste.”
In Buddhism there is a concept known as “mottainai,” which encourages followers to always be grateful for the resources they have, such as food, to be respectful of them, to use them with care and not to waste them.
In Judaism, there is the ethical principle of “Bal tashchit,” or "do not destroy," which has been applied to all forms of senseless damage, including wasting food.
For Sikhs, food is part of spiritual life of every Sikh, and is referred to as rijak, or divine sustenance. Sikhs are admonished to eat only what they need, and to avoid overindulgence; gluttony is viewed as morally reprehensible.
In the New Testament, Christians read about the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. After the meal, Jesus instructs his followers to gather all the leftovers “so that nothing is wasted.”
And yet, despite all this, food waste is a huge problem today. According to Value Chain Management International, a Canadian organization that specializes in the reduction of food waste, Canadians waste over $31 billion of food every year.
Forty-seven percent of that waste happens in Canadian homes—letting food get old in the fridge, forgetting that leftover pizza, buying too much and not being able to use it.
As for the remainder, 20 percent is lost in production, 10 percent in retail and on the farm, 9 percent in restaurants and 6 percent in transport.
It’s no better in many other countries. One estimate pegs food waste in the U.S. at over $160 billion a year. In the U.K., for every three tonnes of food that is eaten another tonne goes to waste.
Worldwide, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that over $3 trillion worth of food—a third of all the food that is grown—is lost or wasted.
Not only is that food not eaten, it contributes to climate change. Food waste, it turns out, is one of the largest sources of garbage in landfills. As it decomposes, it releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Someone who wants to make food waste in Canada a national political issue is NDP Member of Parliament Ruth Ellen Brosseau.
Brosseau has introduced a Private Member’s Bill to Parliament that calls on the Canadian government to declare October 16—World Food Day—as National Food Waste Awareness Day in Canada.
Her bill also calls for the development of a national strategy to reduce food waste in this country.
The goal of such a day, she says, is to “raise awareness, stimulate debate, support existing initiatives and perhaps encourage new ones,” and to “demand that the government take concrete action to tackle this scourge.”
A Buddhist blessing before eating says: “This food is the gift of the whole universe, each morsel is a sacrifice of life. May I be worthy to receive it.”
And, I would add, not waste it.