Hungry vibes

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Contribute your share and save money doing it: Food sharing and food saving are becoming increasingly popular. Almost a chic and trendy habit today, it is necessary for the survival of others, even in Austria. The Viennese food bank Wiener Tafel is a paragon of social transfer, providing 19,000 poverty stricken inhabitants with groceries. The organization saves up to three tons of food each and every day. I met the managing director of the Viennese food bank Alexandra Gruber and discussed the ‘real’ social distinctions in Austria, food rescue as a lifestyle and what needs to be done for the future.

What is the motivation of the Viennese food bank to save food and pass it on to social institutions?

Alexandra Gruber: On the one hand, we are experiencing an abundance, which means that a great deal of food is thrown away. On the other hand, there is a very high number of people who are suffering from poverty, who do not have enough food and whose human right to food is violated. We deliver to social institutions, because it is crucial for us that the profiteers of our service receive professional help. In the best case, people benefit from our supplies in a way that it lifts them out of the trap of poverty. Like a kind of ‘social forwarding’.

What kind of food is thrown away in Vienna? Who produces the waste?

Alexandra Gruber: We do not have exact figures for the individual federal states of Austria, but it is estimated that 700,000 tons of foodstuffs end up in the bin every year. From experience, we can say that half of it is still highly usable. The waste accrues all over the food chain: in agriculture, production, community catering, but also in commerce and households. The reasons differ: Mainly, the food does not meet the usual beauty standards. But it is fully usable and could fill many stomachs.

Your work is probably one of the few activities that take place at both ends of the social scale: You are confronted with both extremes of abundance and need. How do you define social status in Austria in terms of poor and rich?

Alexandra Gruber: You are poor if you do not have a choice of what to eat. The goal needs to be food sovereignty: Being able to eat what you want, and always. If I do not have to ask yourself the question: Do I have enough money left for food at the end of the month? This is often the case.

Where are problems when people get food from the food bank in social institutions? Are they stigmatized?

Alexandra Gruber: Food awareness is much better than 17 years ago when we started to save food. A good example of what I mean is ‘Shelf-life+,’ goods whose expiration date is dated backwards. That makes sense in terms of full edibility. In some social milieus, it is perceived bon ton to consume shelf-life+-products, to actively engage in food-sharing, or even to dumpster food out of the garbage. This is almost chic and trendy to some degree. With respect to the social institutions, however, this can also be a tightrope act: When we first delivered Shelf-life+ products, the first feedback was reservation. It was interpreted as: Second-class products for second-class people. This is, of course, not true at all, but a lot of awareness-raising had to be done to increase the acceptance. That is why building appreciation for food is an important cornerstone of our work. We also translate our brochures into languages other than German so that the topic can be widely perceived in the social institutions.

We have already talked about the food chain, where waste accrues in every step of the process. Are we powerless as individuals to combat food waste?

Alexandra Gruber: In fact, the largest share of the food waste, about 40%, comes from the households, which is ourselves. Thus, everyone is required to think about his own behavior when shopping, cooking or preserving food. Although food retailers are always put on display, the sector was one of the drivers for the establishment of organizations to save food. We also see the need for waste prevention in production and agriculture, but the consumer is the key factor. For example, you should not go shopping with an empty stomach because you buy more than you can process. Or choose a supermarket which at 6pm perhaps no longer offers the entire product line, but thereby avoids waste. Because if products like bread, which should be fresh on purchase but are unsaleable the next day, need to be thrown away, we as consumers pay the price. It is the chicken-egg problem: Food retailers claim the consumer wants everything disposable. Looking at the vegan and organic movement, however, we can observe that a change in the behavior of the consumer also drives the industry to take new steps.

What do we have to do in the future to master food waste? What can international policy-makers do?

Alexandra Gruber: Laws are important, and could enable us to save even more food. In Italy, for example, there is a law named after parliamentarian Chiara Gadda. Attempts were made to garner support from the industry with tax rewards for the distribution of unsalable yet edible goods. In addition, there are disclaimers for the food banks in case inedible goods reach the consumer. However, the global Food Bank Network has put the most important aspect in a nutshell: Hunger is not a food issue, it’s a logistics issue. The most crucial question for us is: How can we organize ourselves to save even more food? A first step is our new house, which we will open in June 2017. But what I think is even more important is the appreciation of voluntary commitment. 90% of our work is unpaid, sometimes I miss the appreciation for it. In other countries, there is a higher awareness. I think it is a duty for politicians and policy-makers to initiate a dialogue with society on voluntarism.