Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Food waste; the value of work

There's an article in today's Metro (London) about Foodcycle, a charity that uses food destined for the bin to cook meals that it then sells at budget prices in its cafes, one of which is near Crouch Hill Station, not all that far from where I work.

At the moment, the cafe at The Station House only opens on Friday lunch times and at the moment they're only using food from two supermarkets and a Marks & Spencers. Don't get me wrong, this is a brilliant enterprise, but let's just take a step back and look at it critically.

  • Food shops throw edible food in the bin. Read it again. Food shops throw edible food in the bin. (Individuals also waste food, I know).
  • This charity - heavily reliant on volunteers - is stopping this on a small scale, and this is referred to as shops 'donating' food.
  • There are people/families in this country who cannot afford the time and/or the money (and or do not have the skills) to source, cook, and eat sufficient healthy food .
One of the ideas of an RBE mentioned by Peter Joseph in a recent talk, is that eating out uses, or can use, food more efficiently. There is, or should be, less waste. Of course, without money, people would go to a restaurant / cafe and eat what they wanted (no more than they needed) and wouldn't feel constrained to gorge to get value for money. It seems likely that eating would be primarily through communal eating places. But it's surely fundamental to any sane economy that edible food should not be thrown away. This admirable charity is saving some, but where is the national effort to conserve this vital resource.

The Metro article also speaks well of the enterprise because it provides work for people to do. Again and again this casual assumption arises. There is no value in work in and of itself. It is only what the work achieves that can be valuable. Think about it, suppose there were some organised system for collecting unwanted but still edible food. Suppose it was a robot of some sort and no human labour were needed to operate it. Wouldn't that be profoundly sensible, even though it didn't create jobs?

This casual, wrong assumption is revealed in the call out section of the article, where one key point is "young people lack the skills that are needed to find gainful employment and affect their community positively". This is ambiguous - it could mean that they lack the skills to find gainful employment and they also lack the skills to affect their community positively, but I think the point being made might be that finding gainful employment is how you they will affect the community positively. I can expose the wrongness of the casual assumption by deleting part of the sentence, and rendering it:

"young people lack the skills that are needed to affect their community positively". This speaks of the need for training and education, and not of the spurious merits of work in and of itself. If people devise a way to make it so less human labour is needed to achieve the same outputs, that is a good thing, even though it is the opposite of creating jobs.

There is a sentence in the article that would suggest, if it weren't for the rest of the article, that they do get it. "Volunteers collect the unwanted[!] produce and turn it into nutritious meals in unused professional kitchen spaces. Meals are then served to those in need in the community, thereby helping to address issues of food poverty and poor nutrition while furnishing young volunteers with valuable skills."

  • Edible food cannot be described as 'unwanted' while there is malnutrition and starvation anywhere. They mean 'unsold'. The shops can't get money for it. Good old money, eh?
  • The food (a physical thing) is nutritious, not the meal (an abstraction), but I'm probably just being picky, here.
  • Unused kitchens - yes a wasted resource is being used validly in this project. More please!
  • There shouldn't be any food poverty and poor nutrition. A rich country like the UK is well placed to eradicate this easily, but it is true of the planet.
  • Yes - upskilling (forgive me) people by having them do something constructive is exactly right. But I'm not talking about future employment, because there is no value in work in and of itself. It is only what the work achieves that can be valuable.

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