Social Grocery r

Article wrtitten by Marco Lucchini, General Manager, Fondazione Banco Alimentare Onlus.

We might jokingly say that we are all children of waste: I can imagine our first ancestors, having bitten into the apple, throwing it to the ground in their anxiety at the trouble they had brought upon themselves and future generations. 

Marco LucchiniJoking aside, it would be a mistake to think that “food waste” is a modern problem, when in fact it has been a constant in human history. We can, however say that over the decades, from the post-war period to the early 2000s, there was a gradual loss of interest in how to recover the surpluses of our fields and dining-tables, and so a sense of the value of food and foodstuffs has also been lost.

To understand this better, we need to make a distinction between two words: surplus and waste. They are now regarded as virtually synonymous: surpluses are always waste, and abundance denotes a lack of civic responsibility. On the contrary, the terms sobriety and education to intelligent consumption are understood only as implying scarcity or cutting down. To get a proper grasp of these concepts, it will be helpful to make a few observations on what life simply and clearly offers us, accompanied by some scientific insight.

The first observation is that the words abundance and surplus have traditionally been associated with joy and gratitude. Since the origins of humanity, people have thanked nature, or the gods in charge of it, for the abundance of creation, then for the fruits of their labour as rewarded by the generosity of natural forces. There has never been a time when people have celebrated poor harvests; always and everywhere, they have partied and expressed gratitude when their fields have yielded an abundance and their tables have groaned under the weight of it. So we can conclude that abundance produces gratitude, not a negative attitude towards nature or human activity in partnership with it. In abundance we are grateful, recognising that we are receiving a precious gift.

A gift to be cared for, traded and shared 

I therefore like to see food as a gift to humankind. Here again, the story of human progress is instructive. Think of the first people
on earth and how, among the millions of “things” they encountered, they identified some that met their daily needs: fruits, animals, water and so on. In time, human intelligence found ways of reproducing these good things, not just spontaneously but under controlled conditions, and so arable and livestock farming began. Progress in these activities led to improved production, and so to the idea that the resulting abundance could be traded with other people, laying the basis for commerce. 

Meanwhile, people had also learned to make better use of the fruits of the earth. They learned how to cook and, as not all this abundance could be consumed fresh, to process foodstuffs so they could be kept for a longer time. The most striking examples are smoking and salting meat, and making cheeses, wine, beer and preserves.

People also realised that there would be times of scarcity, in winter for example, and so learned to store provisions to ensure that they and their fellows would not go hungry during these difficult times. 

In this on-going progress, innovation and sharing went hand in hand. 

Another important aspect that emerged very early on was that food implies relationship: I have received a gift and I want to share it with you. This is all the more obvious if we observe the natural world: every creature, as soon as it is born, establishes contact with its mother through the food she provides. Food is therefore a vector of affection, family life, fellow-feeling, solidarity and enjoyment. One of the many ways of expressing gratitude and sharing at harvest time was the practice of gleaning: not everything was gathered in; some of the harvest was left in the field for the poor to collect.

The relational aspect of food is confirmed by the fact that, when people forget food is a gift and want to have absolute control over it, conflicts, abuses of power, violence - and consequently waste - are the result.

These empirical observations are supported by a study carried out by the Milan Polytechnic University in conjunction with Fondazione per la Sussidiarietà and Fondazione Banco
Alimentare Onlus: “Dar da mangiare agli a"amati. Le eccedenze alimentari come opportunità” (Giving food to the hungry. Food surpluses as an opportunity, pub. Guerini e Associati, Milan, 2012). This piece of research contains two important definitions of surplus and waste. 

Photo 1 edito LucchiniFirstly: “Food surplus. Food products or food which, for various reasons, are not purchased or consumed by the persons for whom they were produced, processed, distributed, served or acquired; the de!nition excludes discards during processing. There may
be various reasons for the generation of food surpluses. In the production stage, there may be errors in forecasting demand, quality defects which reduce the perceived value of the product, possibly as regards its appearance, damage to packaging and so on. At the consumption stage, patterns of behaviour such as shopping infrequently, impulse buying or buying packs which have to be used all in one go may also play a part. The end result is a surplus that has to be managed outside of the usual commercial channels and modes of domestic consumption.”

Secondly: “Food waste. Food waste is the food surplus that is not recovered for human use (social aspect), for animal feed (zoo-technical aspect) or for the production of goods or energy (environmental aspect). Food waste does not in any case include discards during food production and preparation, nor surpluses that are released onto secondary markets.”

The fungibility and management of surpluses

The principal new finding of the study lies in another definition: “Fungibility. The possibility of using a surplus with a minimum of additional activity on the part of the industry
players involved.” The degree of fungibility depends on the “intrinsic fungibility” of a product, i.e. the extent to which a surplus can be used by a beneficiary in the absence of further
management and/or intermediation activities, and the “intensity of management” required, i.e. the input required from companies and intermediaries to make the surplus as usable as possible for final beneficiaries.

Having thus clarified these terms, the researchers estimated that the surplus produced by the Italian agrifoodstuffs industry is 6 million tonnes per annum, equal to 16.9% of total consumption. The causes leading to the generation of such a surplus differ depending on the stage in the overall production/consumption process.

Unfortunately, at present much of the food surplus is wasted, socially speaking, and in being disposed of also generates environmental costs.

Only a small proportion of the surplus (400,000 tonnes) is used for human consumption (partly through donations to the Food Bank Network or charitable organisations), which means that 5.6 million tonnes of the annual 6-million-tonne surplus is wasted. This represents 93% of the surplus and 15.6% of total consumption.

The researchers found that the reasons for the decisions made by companies on how to manage surpluses, assuming equal degrees of fungibility, differ from one to another, and that the weight of the various factors is closely linked with different stages in the chain. The principal reasons they identified are:

- Financial considerations;
- Risks to corporate image;
- Procedures generating food surpluses;
- Poor management;
- Characteristics of the operators active in the market.

A final reflection. Today, many people are talking about waste and studying it as a phenomenon. This is due to the efforts of an individual whom our great-grandchildren will probably not find on their tablets. In a world that had become indifferent to the daily gift of food, this man lit a fuse so powerful that even today people are inspired to work to change and improve human existence. That is why his story is worth telling.

Birth of the food bank movement

It all began in Phoenix (Arizona, USA) at the end of the 1960s, the years which saw the outbreak of student protest in nearby Berkeley. A place with an average temperature of 35°C, in the Navajo reservation, very reminiscent of a town in the old American West. John Van Hengel, a Californian of Dutch origin, had recently come to live in the parish of St. Mary. The reasons for his sudden move from wealthy Los Angeles to Phoenix are now the stu" of legend, but need not to concern us here. Living in the parish and helping in the Franciscan brothers’ soup kitchen was an unplanned experience that changed his whole life. One day he met a mother of ten children whose husband was in prison. This lady often came to the brothers for help, but never to beg for food. This fact intrigued Van Hengel, because he thought a mother’s first concern would be to feed her children. Van Hengel’s was proved correct in his suspicions: the woman was able to feed all ten children by collecting unsold - but perfectly edible - food from the town’s restaurants and supermarkets.

He was so impressed by this clever solution that he decided to do the same to help his Franciscan friends, and with immediate success. He was soon collecting more food than was needed
for the soup kitchen and began sharing it with other parishes and voluntary organisations in the town, to the point where he needed warehouse space. He found a disused bakery, fitted it out and used it to store the food he could not immediately distribute.

He subsequently met the mother again and thanked her for what she had taught him. She replied that what poor people needed was a food bank. And so she gave Van Hegel not Photo 2 edito Lucchinionly the idea, but also the name! Outside his little warehouse, he hung a wooden sign bearing the words: “Saint Mary’s Food Bank”. This was in 1967, forty-eight years ago. John Van Hengel died in 2005, after living for years in a room in the Saint Mary’s Food Bank warehouse, no longer the old bakery, but a depot covering 10,000 square metres.

News of Van Hengel’s food bank spread rapidly and others were soon opened in the United States and, a few years later, in Canada. Nothing carefully planned, but a sort of virtuous contagion: people who saw the warehouse and what was being done there wanted to replicate it. In Canada, Francis Lopez; in France, Bernard Dandrel; in Belgium, Andrè Hubert; in Barcelona, Jordi Peix... In Italy, the Fondazione Banco Alimentare Onlus (FBAO), was founded in 1989, thanks to a meeting between Cav. Danilo Fossati, owner of the Star (food) company, and Mons. Luigi Giussani, founder of the Comunione e Liberazione movement in the Catholic Church. In 1990, the FBAO became a member of the European Federation of Food Banks (Fédération Européene des Banques Alimentaires/FEBA).

Today in Italy, thanks to 1,700 volunteers from 21 Food Bank Organisations operating throughout the country, the FBAO helps to limit food wastage by collecting surpluses from agricultural and industrial producers, the major distribution chains and institutional catering operations, and redistributing it to charities set up to help the poor, the marginalised and all people in need. In 2014, we recovered 55,000 tonnes of surplus food and redistributed it to 7,955 charitable organisations, which bring assistance to 1,720,000 needy people in Italy.

The most efficient and effective way in which the Foundation can serve the common good is by establishing a logistical platform able to connect supply with demand where food surpluses are concerned.

In 2003, the Siticibo programme came into being, the !rst practical result of the “Good Samaritan” Law (the precursor of which was passed in the United States in 1963). Siticibo was established, five months after the promulgation of Law 155/2003, to collect surplus fresh and cooked food from the institutional catering trade (hotels, company and hospital canteens, school dining-rooms, retailers, etc.) and large retail chains. In the last 12 years, 1,000 tonnes of bread, 1,100 tonnes of fruit and roughly 4,000,000 prepared meal servings have been collected in this way.

In 2003, the Siticibo programme came into being, the !rst practical result of the “Good Samaritan” Law (the precursor of which was passed in the United States in 1963). Siticibo was established, five months after the promulgation of Law 155/2003, to collect surplus fresh and cooked food from the institutional catering trade (hotels, company and hospital canteens, school dining-rooms, retailers, etc.) and large retail chains. In the last 12 years, 1,000 tonnes of bread, 1,100 tonnes of fruit and roughly 4,000,000 prepared meal servings have been collected in this way.

The food surplus can therefore be a great asset or a cause of waste. It is a great asset because its shows that the resources are available to meet the needs of those unable to buy food. It becomes a cause of waste if the greater part of this surplus is not used to ful!l its primary purpose (meeting people’s food needs) but is treated as “rubbish”, pointlessly consuming the resources (fields, water, energy and so on) used to produce it and leaving those who most need it destitute.

Don’t condemn a great asset to the rubbish dump

Now that the subject of recovering food, and therefore combating waste, is in the headlines, it is important not only to question how much food is wasted, but also to innovate and do everything possible to ensure that not so much as a crumb is lost. So what can we do to ensure that surpluses are increasingly seen as an opportunity and conscious choices are made in favour of social responsibility and protection of the environment? The effort that all those involved (the public, private and notfor-profit sectors, and consumers) must make to reduce waste and promote the recovery of surpluses is to raise the level of fungibility, as Directive 2008/98/EC also clearly indicates.

There are many possible measures, and human ingenuity will certainly find others, but here we shall suggest just a few that may point the way forward.

The first is more and better communication. In Italy, there are already many successful examples of reducing waste: we need to broadcast news of virtuous practices and their benefits, and adapt the productive and logistical process accordingly.
The second measure is transformation/processing, especially in agriculture, where the goods produced are by nature perishable.
The third involves tax-exempt investment for the catering and distribution trades (where fungibility is low) in research and equipment to ensure that as much food is recovered as possible.

Photo 4 edito LucchiniAt the same time, subsidies need to be granted to not-for-profit organisations, so they can increase their handling capacities.
The fourth measure is a simplification of the regulations, because inappropriate rules often discourage people from getting involved in food collection activities.
The fifth measure requires that public authorities and central government encourage innovation by monitoring and assessing efforts to manage surpluses and by affording recognition to companies which adopt virtuous behaviour.
Finally, alongside companies, national and European institutions and not-for-profit organisations, the consumer, too, faces a big challenge in trying to reduce food waste, though it must be said that recent research by AC Nielsen (2012) and Lombardy-based consumer associations such as Movimento Consumatori, Adiconsum e Cittadinanza Attiva, indicates that many Italian families have adopted virtuous practices, making sure food is used before its expiry date and recycling “left-overs”.

Of course, in the domestic refrigerator the degree of fungibility is practically zero! And it should be said that, although in Italy the total tonnage of wasted food is high (more than 2,000,000 tonnes per annum), amounts per head are low compared with many other countries. An initial short-term initiative is, however, needed to raise families’ awareness and encourage the adoption of more efficient shopping practices. Food-processing and distribution companies can help in this by adopting positive solutions, for example in their packaging and promotions. At the same time, people need to be re-educated in sharing with their neighbour, the person next door rather than the needy family in their area everybody knows about. Hopefully this will have two results: the poor are fed and blessed with the food donated and community relations are restored, promoting social inclusion and giving people renewed hope.