This fall, the United Nations is preparing to launch its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—an extraordinary action plan to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Over the coming months, we’ll be connecting with The Local Globalists: 17 nonprofit founders, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who are working every day, wherever they are, to turn one of the U.N.’s #globalgoals into reality.
Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
It’s an adage that’s been heard at frugal family dinner tables for ages: “Finish your food; there are starving children in Africa.” It’s also an adage that makes British chef and food waste activist Adam Smith cringe.
It’s not that Smith doesn’t agree that the simultaneous problems of food waste—1.3 billion metric tons of edible food being tossed per year, to be exact—and widespread hunger are both nonsensical and staggering. Rather, he disagrees with the idea that solution lies with the individual diners themselves.
And while he may share a name with the father of neoliberal market economics, don’t let that throw you. When it comes to the market and its ability to determine what’s safe to eat, the current system is irreconcilably broken, Smith says. He created his Real Junk Food Project to show there’s another way.
“A lot of things that apply in [developing] countries and war-torn places when it comes to food are happening in the western world right one our doorstep,” Smith said. “There are people suffering from a lack of access to food while we experience an overabundance of food in exactly the same time and place. So we decided to tackle these problems and break down the social stigma about how we manage food.”
Smith is out to prove a theory as much as he is out to feed people: The food going to waste on a massive scale every day is perfectly fit for human consumption, as long as you use common sense. He started in 2013 in his hometown of Armley, Leeds, where he opened the first Real Junk Food Project cafe, preparing food with ingredients intercepted from restaurants, rubbish bins, supermarkets, farmers, and wholesale retailers.
To date, RJFP cafes all over the world—from Berlin to Cape Town to Israel—have fed 60,000 people. While he “gives away” meals on a pay-what-you-feel basis (which allows him to skirt legislation that forbids the selling of food that’s passed its use-by date), Smith insists that the RJFP is a business, not a charity. That’s an important distinction, he notes, given how society thinks about discarded food.
“When food is going to waste, we automatically say, ‘Let’s take it to the homeless shelter or give it to somebody who is poor,’ but what’s happened is that so much food is being wasted that those who are in need are eating better than those who can afford it,” Smith explains. “In order to prove to the government that this food is fit for consumption, we have to allow everyone to eat it, and not just target that needy demographic.”
Smith says his goal is "to put ourselves out of business as soon as possible, we don't want to exist and shouldn't need to." To do that, RJFP will need to get policy makers and consumers to start to take notice of what food companies are getting away with when it comes to proliferating consumers’ fear of spoiled food, and then bearing no consequences when they waste huge amounts of blemished but edible food. This comes at a time when the European Parliament, following in France’s footsteps, is considering passing an amendment requiring supermarkets to distribute their unsold products to NGOs.
Smith blames the confusing matrix of dates printed on food as a large part of the problem. In the U.K., only high risk foods like meat, dairy, and shellfish legally require “Use By” dates. However, almost all food—packaged, fermented, preserved—has “Sell By,” “Display By,” or “Best Before” dates, which Smith says are unnecessary, work to confuse the consumer, and ultimately bolster the food companies’ bottom line.
“Dates have replaced common sense—we’ve seen products like salt and vinegar in the cafe that have use-by dates on them,” Smith says. “There’s a psychology behind the power of expiration dates and they’re used as a tool to manipulate people to consume products which they don't need to buy.”
It’s ironic that in 2015, Smith’s vision for the future is, in many ways, a world that used to exist. A time when our grandparents would’ve laughed at the idea of an individually plastic-wrapped banana or apple and wouldn't have dreamed of throwing out a basket of fruit thanks to a lone moldy strawberry. He desperately wants to return to a time when, rather than “fearing food and producing things in order for them to be wasted,” we are more connected to where our food comes from and intuitively know how to prepare it properly.
However, as much as Smith has made global food waste his own problem, he cautions against individuals becoming too militant or obsessed with minimizing their own personal waste output. He hopes for a consciousness shift in which consumers start thinking of food in terms of energy—that is, the resources required to grow food, package it, transport it and then unnecessarily waste it—and to help close that gap by taking part in communal or home-level composting projects. Ultimately though, Smith says the main responsibility lies with large corporations changing the way they do business.
“There’s a lot of responsibility being passed on to consumers by the large supermarkets and large producers who aren't taking responsibility,” Smith says. “Don’t ever fall into the trap of feeling [personally] responsible for food waste on a global scale, because what we do is minimal to what the conglomerates do right now.”