Food Matters and Neoliberalism: Talk Transcript for Food Matters Symposium

I recently participated in symposium that was considering waste in relation to food.  It was put on as a pre-conference event to the 2015 RGS/IBG meetings held in Exeter. The symposium, which took place on a working farm, was both fascinating and very engaging. You can find out more about the event and its participants on the web site developed by the organisers here.  I encourage you to have a look at the link as you will learn about West Town Farm and the activities of the day. My role at the symposium was to give a short talk around the issue of food waste and neoliberalism.  I chose to use an excellent food re-use project–The Real Junk Food Project–as a mechanism for focusing my questions. I am offering the text of my provocation in what follows.  

Food Matters and Neoliberalism: Talk Transcript for Food Matters Symposium


“Thank you for inviting me today to participate in this panel. As a bit of background—my interest is in urban food systems and specifically the ways in which we organise and institute those systems such that it becomes more difficult or easy for people to access, for example, the food they need.

This interest arises from partly from a theoretical/academic curiosity seeks to understand how society produces inclusion and exclusion via its communications systems. These systems arise out of social practices and become fixed via repetition and in some instances, according to Luhmann and Parsons, the development of symbolically generalised communication media (E.g., money).

With regard to food, there is a framing of the problem as one that is, on the one hand, at a global and/or national scale. In the UK, a reading of government documentation reveals the emphasis is future oriented—not do we have enough now, but will we have enough food to feed ourselves in the future. As such policy interventions and motivations largely focus on increasing production—GM, intensification, or the enfolding of new spaces into productive use—and there are select committees and government departments operating at the national scale that have the mandate to respond.

At the same time, there is also social acknowledgement of waste and over and or under-abundance of one form or other. Because of the individualising tactics of neoliberalism, discourses around this problem place responsibility for the over/under abundance at the local or individual scale. Examples of this include the ways in which programs and public information campaigns focus on domestic food waste as the site of inefficiency or invoke Jevon’s paradox to argue that we would waste less if food was made more expensive. In contrast, there is a paucity of intervention that focuses on how the supply side of the market produces demand inefficiencies. This is because in the market efficiencies are theorised to be pursued because of the apparent more rational nature of that part of the system. Never mind that market efficiencies under neoliberalism are largely profit focused. Thus, to demand the redistribution of un-used food from within the market that would undermine that profit efficiency and would be an anathema.

As such, we can argue neoliberal governance produces food waste through its pursuit and prioritisation of market efficiencies that cast the value of food not as a medium of commensurability that helps forge social interaction nor as a medium of nutrition that facilitates health, but instead as mechanism for profit through its monetary value.

If we reject the notion that the importance of food as a medium is exclusively within the economic sphere, one way to tackle the issue is to try engage with a program of system change that seeks to re-focus the ways in which food is exchanged and given value.

What I am now going to do is focus a bit on The Real Junk Food Project to illustrate how some people are trying to enact just this process of re-valuing of food away from economic values toward social values. I want to also suggest that not all surplus food is the same and this differentiation matters to its availability for re-use.

The Real Junk Food project, originated in Leeds, but has since expanded to Manchester, Brighton, and Sheffield. Its aims are threefold: a) to challenge the idea that surplus food is the same as waste and should be treated in the same way—e.g., thrown away b) to try to widen the scope of what is valuable and to change the form of exchange such that a wider range of people might participate and c) to explicitly engage with the commensurability qualities of food to enable diverse communities to form and thrive.

The way they seek to enable the second aim is by operating a pay as you feel model rather than one reliant on prices. This value is not focused on profit but on the experience and what matters to the person consuming.

Importantly the central aim of the Real Junk Food Project is not to feed those who are food insecure (but to highlight the prevalence of wasted food across the UK and act to reduce it). Though the pay as you feel model does enable participation by those who are food insecure in eating out. The process of paying is accomplished via a jar on the table where you can insert whatever money you feel—or none at all—without observation or performance, as is the case with a cashier or a waiter who presents your check. This approach also contributes to achieving the project’s third aim, which is also addressed via the ways in which the restaurants are organised and staffed; including cafeteria style serving, tables that are communal, and enabling people to become involved by helping to cleanup or provide entertainment. This approach has the advantage of also moving away from the victorian charity model whereby there is a beneficent giver and a dependent (and worthy) receiver.

Achievement of the first aim of the project, which is to reduce food waste by recovering food that is still edible but thrown away, bears further scrutiny in light of today’s symposium agenda.

Firstly, while there is an abundance of surplus food in the UK, it does not mean that this food is available for initiatives like The Real Junk Food Project to use, and indeed one might question whether organisations like this are the best source for re-distribution. For example, FairShares redistributes foods to food banks that is within date and safe, but is surplus because of things like errors in labelling that cause supermarkets to reject them for aesthetic reasons. FairShares redistributes food items in instances where there is abundance or over production. FairShares has a well established network of suppliers and obligations to community food banks based on longstanding relationships. (These food banks then donate surplus to TRJFP as they often end up with singular items of stock, e.g. a pallet of corn flakes rather than ingredients to make a meal. Furthermore, some food banks cannot keep items for more than 3 months, so again it comes to TRJFP still in date, to turn it into quality meals for people) If legislation were enacted forcing supermarkets to redistribute surplus food from its stores, a choice arises between organisations like Fair Shares, The Real Junk Food Project, and other organisations and individuals seeking to recover surplus food. Effectively the legislation produces a market, albeit one not based on money. There is a moral dilemma, whereby food to that could be used to feed the hungry becomes subject to competition. But then, why should only the poor have to eat discarded food? When discarded food becomes reserved for the poor a secondary effect arises whereby those eaters are further devalued.

The Leeds restaurant admits to reclaiming food from supermarket dumpsters within 10 minutes after it has been thrown away as well as developing relationships with existing businesses and so forth. In Sheffield, which currently runs pop-up restaurants, rather than a daily restaurant in a fixed location, sources its food not from dumpters/skips but from donations from individuals and businesses, including some supermarkets.

It has also used leftover food from local festivals, such as the recent Sheffield Tramlines festival and catered events, though this is a bit more difficult to repurpose into new dishes.

Interestingly, the Sheffield Real Junk Food Project have also received leftover food from food banks. This is food that is the result of overabundant donation—such as teabags—but also foods that have been donated, but which are not wanted and have included lentils, quinoa, and zucchini. The food bank that donated these foods to the project commented that these were foods those using the food bank did not know how to cook or indicated that their children would not eat so they may as well not take it. What this shows is that redistributed food, like food we find in the supermarket or food we grow demand certain affordances depending upon what exactly it is.

Finally, what appears on the menu for each meal is dependent upon what is collected. In the case of the Leeds restaurant, which serves every day, this means that those involved have to find food supplies each day. The urgency of this has been less for the Sheffield group, but other issues have arisen as a result of this unsteady supply and the reliance on what are effectively gifts. With gifts, you cannot be choosy. As a result, sometimes there is great variety with plenty of vegetables, starches, and proteins and other foods that when combined produce lovely, well balanced meals. Sometimes what is collected is rather imbalanced or overly processed—or an over-representation of bread with an under abundance of vegetables and fruits as was the case at an early July meal in Sheffield for my meal when those items on the menu that were more balanced ran out. But TRJFP Sheffield always aim to have a huge supply of veg and fruit from Banana Bobs, Food Aware CIC and Beanie’s Wholefoods. The menu from the day shows this. We even had a juicing station so we could use up the fruit to provide fresh juices). Thus what is surplus, is also insecure and not always necessarily the components of a healthy meal for everyone who shows up. TRJFP Sheffield’s aim, however is to provide quality meals and to show that they can be created with limited ingredients, which if you look at our menus online has always been the case). This critique of unbalanced meals is one which can be levelled at foodbanks, though there are those which try to work against this. Foodbanks are currently the government’s preferred model for addressing food insecurity in the UK and other nations adopting neoliberal social policy.

Taken together, what we can see is that to seek to take advantage of what appears to be an abundance of surplus food within the system is a fraught process of moral dilemmas and requires skill and effort such that the ability to access and use that abundance is not as straightforward as one might imagine. While some of the difficulty arises as the result of food safety legislation, what I have highlighted here is largely differentiation that emerges from beyond that legal context and as a result reducing liability related to food donation on its own will not solve the problem.

Furthermore, the real junk food project is caught in a paradox of its own (which it acknowledges). In order to work it must rely on a system that poses food as surplus in the first instance and it is the creation of the category “surplus” or “waste” that then produces these problems I have identified here as well as others. If, over time, the process of acclimating people around the notion of eating food that is surplus is successful, as per the aims of the organisation, perhaps this is a moot point. Lets hope that the need for food banks disappears at the same time.”



6 thoughts on “Food Matters and Neoliberalism: Talk Transcript for Food Matters Symposium

  1. Pingback: Why SURPLUS food is important for feeding vulnerable people | GeoFoodie

  2. Pingback: Neoliberalism and the making of food as waste–or–The need to reframe the debate from food waste to food surplus | GeoFoodie

  3. Reblogged this on Kitchen Counter Culture and commented:
    Addressing hunger with food-waste might seem like a perfect kill-two-birds-with-one-stone approach to large social-economic problems. I’m not so sure about this and am working on a piece of writing that began around early campaigning in the UK to follow the French lead in legislating supermarket food waste. Haven’t really sorted through my thoughts and critiques yet, but am collecting ideas around this theme. Megan Blake is an academic geographer at University of Sheffield and writes this blog about food justice and hunger, among other issues. This piece I’m reblogging is a really good beginning, and I’m hoping posting it will help me sort through and write out my own thoughts on this topic. She puts the connection of waste and hunger in the context of neoliberal ideas of the market, and looks at activists seeking to shift the values of the debate from the economic to a social realm.

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