Neoliberalism and the making of food as waste–or–The need to reframe the debate from food waste to food surplus

I seem to do a lot of talks and in doing so sometimes this involves reshaping and thinking further about talks I have given in the past.  On Monday I presented at the Annual Symposium held by the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield.  There were many papers that I felt sat well next to each other.  I particularly could see the synergies between my presentation and that of John Miller, who is in the English Department, who talked about natural capital and the humanities. Value was a central part of his discussion and I thought it well with my text.   This text is a revised version of what I presented earlier this year at West Town Farm as part of the IBG meetings.  

As a bit of background—my academic interest is in urban food systems and specifically the ways in which we organize and institute those systems such that it becomes more difficult or easy for people to produce and access the food they need.

Social systems and Neoliberalism

My interest arises from partly from a theoretical/academic interest which seeks to understand how society produces inclusion and exclusion via its communications systems, which arise out of social practices and become fixed via repetition and in some instances, according to Luhmann and Parsons, the development of symbolically generalized communication media, such as money.

The political system, according to Luhmann is separate from the economic system in that the internal logics of the economy do not have a necessary relationship with a particular political system, but there is a synergistic and contingent relationship whereby certain communications within economics become normalized and easier when the political system is in alignment. The converse is also true in that some communications become alternative and more difficult. Likewise the political system in and of itself is not dependent upon the economic system but certain power relations become easier or more difficult to formalize when the two systems are acting in alignment.

Neoliberalism as a political ideology aligns with and reinforces the market mechanisms of the economic system in ways that not only enable money to move more freely through society and across geo-political borders.

Noel Castree (2010. Geography Compass 4/12: 1725-33) in a paper defining Neoliberalism identifies several dimensions or tools used by the project. These include (definitions are quoted directly from the paper):

  • Privatisation (i.e. assigning clear, legally enforceable, private property rights to hitherto unowned, government owned or communally owned aspects of the social and natural worlds).
  • Marketisation (i.e. rendering alienable and exchangeable things that might not previously have been subject to a market calculus lubricated by monetary transactions within and between nation states).
  • State roll back or deregulation (i.e. the withdrawal or diminution of government intervention in certain areas of social and environmental life in order to enable firms and consumers to exercise ‘freedom of choice’; and the creation of new quasi-state or state-sanctioned actors to take on functions that states themselves could otherwise per- form in theory or practice).
  • Market-friendly reregulation (i.e. a reconfiguration of state⁄governmental policies so as to extend the frontiers of privatisation and marketisation. Here, then, the state in its various forms becomes ‘market manager’ or ‘night watchman’, and less of a ‘provider’ to the citizenry or special interests therein: it intervenes for the economy not, as it were, in it. This entails fiscal discipline, a focus on supply side investments, entrepreneur- and consumer-friendly tax policies, firm-friendly labour market policies, and measures to enable ‘free’ movements of money capital and also other less ‘fluid’ com- modities).
  • Use of market proxies in the residual governmental sector (i.e. making remaining state services more market-like in their operation through the use of measures like internal markets, cost-recovery and budget-capping).
  • Volunteerism: The strong encouragement of ‘flanking mechanisms’ in civil society (i.e. state-led measures to promote the growth of voluntary, charitable, ‘third sector’ and community groups who are seen as being able to fill the vacuum created by the absence⁄diminution of direct state-support in the social and environmental domains. This is linked to formal state encouragement, where appropriate, of the so-called ‘informal’ and ‘social’ economies whose functioning relies only partly, or not at all, on monetary transactions).
  • Individualisation: The creation of ‘self-sufficient’ individuals and communities (i.e. the cultivation of an ethic among persons and communities that emphasises less, and ultimately limited, reliance on state-provided services for life’s necessities. For neoliberals this ethic is almost a ‘natural’ good. It encapsulates the individual’s right to maximum freedom and their responsibility for their own affairs).

These tools according to David Harvey are mobilized as part of a class warfare as the way they are selectively applied to enable the circulation of money, in ways that concentrates power in the hands of those with the greatest access to money either directly or indirectly via the translation of resources into elements that become easily exchangeable using the media of money.


Slide4With regard to food, there is a framing of the problem of one which is on the one hand at a global and/or national scale.  In the UK, a reading of government documentation reveals an emphasis that is both neoliberal and future oriented—not questions of 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, which have the mandate to respond. Moreover, through the application of the neoliberal tools such as privatisation in the form of patents or the use of market-friendly regulation, for example the non-taxation of pesticides, we see much of the food security discussion oriented toward fixes that also benefit the market and those most able to engage in that market process.

At the same time, and on the other hand, there is also emerging social acknowledgement of waste and over and/or under-abundance of one form or other. Because of the individualizing tactics of neoliberalism, discourses around excess/lack place responsibility for the over/under abundance at the local or individual scale. Examples of this strategy 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, as opposed to focusing on the supply side of the market where efficiencies are theorized to be pursued because of the apparent more rational nature of that side of the system. Never mind that market efficiencies under neoliberalism are largely measured via a profit focus. Thus, to demand the redistribution of food from within the market that would undermine that profit efficiency would be an unspeakable anathema for those committed to the neoliberal project.

As such, we can argue neoliberal governance produces food waste through its pursuit and prioritization of market efficiencies that cast the value of food not as a medium of commensurability that helps forge social interaction, or as a medium of nutrition that facilitates health, but instead as solely a 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 engage with a program of system change, which seeks to re-focus the ways in which food is exchanged and given value. 

The REAL Junk Food Project

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 partially arises out of neoliberalism and matters to its availability for re-use. Finally, I want to point to the ways in which efforts like this are imbricated with neoliberalism in ways that both support and threaten their success.

The Real Junk Food project originated in Leeds but has since expanded to Manchester, Brighton, and Sheffield and other initiatives are forming elsewhere. The RJFP’s aims are threefold:

1) to challenge the idea that surplus food is the same as waste and should be treated in the same way—e.g., thrown away

2) 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

3) to explicitly engage with the commensurability qualities of food to enable diverse communities to form and thrive.

The first aim is operationalized via the way in which food is sourced. In Sheffield, the RJFP currently runs pop-up restaurants, rather than a daily restaurant in a fixed location, sources its food not from dumpsters/skips but from donations from individuals and businesses, including some supermarkets and food banks. It has also used leftover food from local festivals, such as the recent Sheffield Tramlines festival and other catered events such as weddings. (Update 6/1/17: SRJF now also has a regular restaurant, runs a school food programme and is operating a pay-as-you-feel-food-store)

The way the project seeks to enable the second aim is by operating a pay as you feel model rather than one reliant on prices. Pay as you feel is accomplished via a jar on the table where you can insert whatever money you feel the meal is worth—or none at all—without observation or performance, as is the case with a cashier or a waiter who presents your check. Thus value is not focused on profit but on the experience and what matters to the person consuming.

The pay as you feel model contributes to achieving the project’s third aim as well. The third aim is also operationalised 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 clean up or provide entertainment.

Importantly the Real Junk Food Project is not specifically aiming to feed those who are food insecure but instead encourage us all to reduce our food waste. A reading of the project’s aims and practices also suggests a core belief is that food insecurity is the product of capitalism and neoliberalism and the project is seeking to undermine these larger systems while it also seeks to reduce food waste.


In the remainder of my discussion I want to briefly argue that despite its aims to move against neoliberal capitalism, the project is intricately wound up in that very system and indeed the system both enables and constrains the project. As a result of this set of relationships, not all food becomes surplus equally and indeed neoliberal capitalism shapes how and what food becomes available for re-use. My illustration will necessarily be brief and partial due to time/space constraints.

The Real Junk Food Project collect a whole range of foods from many sources.  They seek to provide healthy meals that include an abundance of fruits and vegetables. But given the ways in which food becomes surplus, a good amount of food that becomes surplus is also food that is already made into something else–e.g., cereal, bread.  Moreover, there is an abundance of surplus food, which is not easily reclaimable by the project because of its already over-processed nature, a nature which arises from the value added that such foods can command. Food becomes more valuable financially when it is altered than if it is kept in its raw form. Processes and cooked food is more difficult to repurpose into new dishes. A repurposed sausage roll is still a sausage roll at its heart and such dishes invoke unappetising memories of 1960’s and 1970’s food trends whereby cans of cream of mushroom soup were poured over just about everything and topped with fried onions to produce a quick and easy casserole.  This wider food context provides a real problem for the food re-claiming projects such as The RJFP and one which they seek to overcome. They report that despite the volume of food within our system that is processed, which is then frequently passed on to food banks, there is also an abundance of fresh food that is also wasted.

The Sheffield Real Junk Food Project has also received leftover food from food banks. Food banks rely on donations that are afforded by firstly the abandonment of the hungry through state roll back and the use of market-proxies in the government sector that create a space to be filled by the third and voluntary sectors. The food the RJFP receives is food that is the result of overabundant donation—such as teabags—or becomes surplus from the requirement that food be discarded after three months but which may still be in date. But, there are also foods that are not wanted by food bank users. Items in this category have included lentils, quinoa, and zucchini/courgettes. The food bank that donated these foods to the project commented that these were foods that 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 to avoid it becoming household waste. 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, but also their rejection is linked to the internalisation of public messages around our individual responsibility to reduce food waste. Thus hungry people rejecting food shifts from an irrational personal choice to a rational response of active citizenship within a system that instructs us to take more care with our rubbish.

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, but the Sheffield project does not partly because of the legal risks associated with service food directly reclaimed from rubbish sites. The regulation of this potential source of food surplus doubly renders some food risky as it adds legal risk for both the discarding and gathering agents onto biological risk. As such, all the food that appears on the menu for each RJFP Sheffield meal is dependent upon what is salvaged and given. 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 starts out as a balanced menu, but depending upon volume collected and when the eater shows up can seem rather imbalanced—for example an over-representation of bread with an under abundance of vegetables and fruits, as was the case at an early July meal in Sheffield that I attended in 2015 (at this dinner there was a juice bar and a vegetable stew but for a period this was not available–poor timing on my part, but also an indicator of the popularity of the project given the number of eaters present). Thus what is surplus, is also insecure and not necessarily the components of a healthy meal in practice (though for the RJFP this absence of food waste and lack of food like this that is available to eat is always a core intent).  Indeed such nutritional critiques are levelled at food banks, which are the current UK government’s preferred model for addressing food insecurity and which is something the RJFP is trying to work against. The main point here, however, is that a government policy that seeks out and prioritises initiatives that rely on volunteerism are not sufficient as a model for meeting our obligations under the UN conventions regarding access to food for all.


Taken together, what we can see is that the RJFP seeks to take advantage of what appears to be an abundance of surplus food within the current food regime, but the ability to access and use that abundance is not as straight forward as one might imagine. An aim to provide nutritional meals limits what is salvaged from a system that seeks to add value to food by making it less nutritious. Some of the difficulty for accessing food surplus arises as the result of food safety legislation.  What I have highlighted here is largely differentiation that emerges from beyond that narrow legal context.

Even as it tries to undermine the dominant economic and political system of Neoliberal Capitalism, The Real Junk Food Project is caught up in the web of neoliberalism through the ways that food surplus is produced by the economic system, the affordances that surround different materialities of what becomes surplus food from within that system, and the political and legal context within which it is able to exist. While it is the aim of the project to change the system such that a need for the project is removed from that system, our current governmental strategy is to seeking out projects such as this one to fill the gaps left by rolling back support for people in favour of markets. It is perhaps a difficult position, but The Real Junk Food Project folk are pragmatic in their belief that change from within can also become a force for more structural change.

What this story also tells us is that there is an important need to reframe the debate such that we talk about the constraints and limitations of our system that firstly, produces food that is surplus and secondly, that casts surplus food as food waste or as others have argued food for the poor.  This discussion is beginning to happen through the real and concerted actions of groups and organisations like The Real Junk Food project and many others (see also the work of our University of Sheffield students who have developed their own projects such as Save our Sandwiches and Food Hall) and which are being taken up and made more widely public through campaigns by celebrity chefs such as Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall though his #waronwaste.

3 thoughts on “Neoliberalism and the making of food as waste–or–The need to reframe the debate from food waste to food surplus

  1. Couple of thoughts having read your piece. On food safety perhaps counter intuitively fresh meat is likely to be a safer option than other ready to eat foods. On a risk basis raw meat needs to go through a further cooking process which if managed through a normal commercial kitchen gives an opportunity to render it safe. Ready to eat food would have to be consumed as it is recieved so any prior contamination comes part and parcel.

    My other thought is that any kitchen with any pride should generate very little waste. Good kitchen management, production planning and use of good old techniques for preserving and nose to tail eating techniques should see to that. In our kitchen off cuts from one dish go into another and even the peelings are composted. I guess it is sad that large scale fast food style operations as well as offering poor customer choice, by focusing on one or a few prime dishes mean that ever other part tends to be surplus.

    • These are really interesting comments. Thank you.

      They raise some paradoxes about window stickers for example. There is a move to introduce stickers in the windows of stores/restaurants that are willing to donate surplus. But, if, as you say there is no surplus then no point in donating. The lack of a sticker would put social pressure on to become wasteful in order to be seen to be a good citizen potentially.

      I take your point about food safety and raw food. I’ll have another think about the explanation in this point. I can see how certain dining styles could lead to a greater volume of prepared food waste–e.g., left over sandwiches or other cooked food that are available n a buffet or where food is served family style, rather than on a single plate, restaurant style– though in the many years I worked in restaurants, serving sizes meant that a lot of food was wasted by people who did not eat their whole meal. This excess is harder to pass on than food that is part of a shared display.

      The lack of raw meat becoming surplus is very interesting and suggests greater stewardship in some cases, compared to pressed foods with meat in them. Would love to hear further thoughts from others on this topic.

      • Thanks for the feedback. To qualify my comments a little further I could add the following.
        Each catering operation is different in how it has to prepare for its style of service and target market and hence its level of waste. My contention would be that top end restaurants and more traditional restaurants with skilled chefs would waste very little, if anything. Top end restaurants which are fully booked months in advance often with fixed price menus will have virtually no waste. They will be prepping exactly what they need for each service. You could argue that their service style with multiple small courses concentrating on taste and presentation rather than volume would also lead to virtually no plate waste (if you have waited for months for your table and are by defiintion a foodie you are unlikely to waste even a small morsel). Traditional kitchens with a brigade of skilled chefs would take it as a matter of pride or at least in an effort to achive their food cost targets not to waste. Hence bones from roasted poultry, fish bones, butchery bones would be used for stocks/soups etc.

        However, these operations of course are only a small part of the industy and as mass market operations have flourished much skill has been taken out of the kitchen. The need to “Super SIze” has increased portion sizes and the general culture of the throw away society coupled with cheap food has lead to waste which would leave our Grandmothers completley mystified. Not knowing quite how many customers you will serve in any particular session means that you would rather aim to over produce than not be able to fill demand. In these cases there is certainly a question of what to do with this prepared food and perhaps raw food if anticipated demand at time of ordering did not materialise.

        On the food hygiene questions there are major considerations of how you handle any surplus coming from food service operations. All suppliers of food must have their own writtten food safety management procedures governing everything from temperature control, how to pack and transport food and time limits for storage. Therefore any organisation utilising waste is likely to have to have even higher controls given food is now being recycled and taken again from storage to a new destination. Obviously this is possible to do as can be seen at the excellent FareShare resource – – these issues need to be carefuly considered by anyone lloking to donate or receive “waste” food

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