I am upset every time I see leftover food on plates, and the agitation is a result of the way I was brought up.
I belong to a generation whose parents scolded us when we left food, especially rice, on our plates. Most Thai students in my day were forced to read a poem describing the toil of farmers who cultivate rice for us to eat. One memorable line from this poem reads: "Every time you ingest those grains of rice, remember our toil, the smell of perspiration."
The powerful line makes you eat your rice and food with both a sense of gratitude and the macabre. Needless to say, it is startling to see people in China leave food on their plates, often one-third and sometimes half the portion served. It is not like I have never seen people throw away food before, but it is perplexing how a country that once experienced starvation and death on a massive scale has evolved such a culture of overabundance.
China was devastated by one of the world's worst famines, which coincided with Mao's Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962, when between 15 million to 45 million people died of starvation (depending on what source of information you believe). My Chinese friends say that people have not forgotten the Great Famine. On the contrary, they have developed a counter-reaction _ a great leap in food waste has resulted from a desire to feel food is plentiful. Leaving leftovers on your plate announces you have more than enough to eat.
One friend, whose father survived the famine, said pensively: "We did not experience the Great Famine so we lack gratitude for food. When me and my mum were cleaning up, trying to throw away leftover food from the New Year's party, he wouldn't have any of it. He would rather save the leftovers and make a meal with it later."
Indeed, the country has become more alert and responsive to this wasteful habit. Recently Xi Jinping, who becomes China's president next month, commented this was a "wasteful habit" which "needed to be corrected" right away. Since January, the Chinese people and media have given much attention to a so-called "Operation Empty Plate" campaign. Media and micro-bloggers discussed the problem and offered psychoanalysis. At my office canteen in Beijing there are posters urging people not to throw away leftover food.
People have suggested solutions such as doggy bags, or calling for restaurants to impose fines on leftover food, or making them offer smaller portions.
But food waste is not only a problem in China. An average family of four in the US spends between US$500 and $2,000 (about 15,000-60,000 baht) a year on food that ends up in the garbage bin, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal last year, while the European Parliament warned last year 50% of food bought in Europe went uneaten.
In China, food waste from restaurants between 2006 and 2008 was equivalent to 10% of its annual grain yield, enough to feed 200 million people for a year.
There has been a myth about food shortages. Companies and scientists who advocate genetically-modified organisms tell us the world faces food shortages and only technology will bring more food to poor people.
However, I believe the problem is not about supply, it is more to do with poor resource management _ about the gargantuan amount of food we throw away. The statistics are clear: there is enough food for people, but not enough thought about supply.
What is the situation in Thailand? We are known as a food exporting country and position ourselves as a "kitchen of the world". But do we fare any better?
I am afraid not. Since buffet meals became popular in the 1980s, I feel the food consumption habits of Thais has changed. I can't forget the hoarding mentality introduced to the Thai middle class with the arrival of all-you-can-eat salad bars at Pizza Hut when I was a student.
Fortunately, Pizza Hut ended the campaign. Under the salad bar promotion, each customer was given a bowl and allowed to take as much vegetables as they could, but only once. I remember me and my friend prudently piling up a mountain of vegetables in our salad bowls and gingerly walking back to our table. We feared even our breath, a sneeze or a hiccup would make the mountain of vegetables in the salad bowl crumble like an avalanche.
Since buffet-style meals became popular, people started hoarding food on their plates because they feared other diners would take away valuable items _ salmon, shrimp and imported food. People always take more than they can chew. I wonder how many youngsters or people nowadays can recite that poem about the hardship of farmers?
Anchalee Kongrut is a feature writer for Life, currently based in Beijing on the FK journalist exchange programme.
About the author
- Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: News Reporter