When I die, I would like to be buried in a large, biodegradable, click-n-lock Tupperware coffin, my hair glistening beneath a rubber-seal lid, my feet resting against the firm clear sides like a pair of carrot batons. I want to be remembered in death precisely as I was when I lived: absolutely up to my armpits in leftovers.
Because, despite the temptation to blame my generation for every problem going, from political apathy to air pollution, not all millennials waste all food. You may have seen the news that “time-poor millennials” are “preoccupied by the visual presentation of food” while “failing to plan meals, buying too much and then throwing it away”. Which may be true.
It certainly is true that the UK churns out 15 million tonnes of food waste a year — of which 7 million tonnes come from households. This is inexcusable. Particularly when so much of the food we throw away is flown in, creating serious CO2 emissions, from countries facing their own food scarcity or economic uncertainty.
But to lay the blame at the feet of Instagram, young professionals, social media, exotic flavours and an interest in aesthetics seems partial, if not actual nonsense. The people I know doing a “big shop” in their Vauxhall Corsas, loading up on convenience food and getting takeaways before throwing shrink-wrapped onions into landfill and pouring milk down the sink aren’t the young metropolitan food bloggers. They’re the middle-aged, middle-income, middle-of-the-plate parents who have been divorced from the reality of food production by a lifetime of supermarkets, “best before” dates, buy-one-get-one-free offers and ready meals.
Like the 17 per cent of under-35-year-olds surveyed by Sainsbury’s, I rarely, if ever, throw food away. I’ll happily scrape off mould, growths, tubers and furring decay like Barbara Hepworth going at a block of limestone. I’ll give leftovers various incarnations — squashy tomatoes made into a pasta sauce, then thickened up into a bean chilli, then blended into soup and then that soup used to pad out a dahl. I make my own bread, I never eat takeaways,
I cook from scratch and love nothing more than a “we’ve got an egg, a leek, some rice and a bunch of coriander” challenge of a midweek meal.
Forget dinner photography; the real cause of food waste is a postwar, intensive farming and supermarket culture that has divorced us entirely from how food is made, grown, produced and should be eaten. I know lots of good people who have never grown so much as a lettuce, have never been to an arable farm, have never seen an orchard, have never met a vegetable grower and so don’t understand quite what it means to throw away an apple just because it’s got a brown spot on one side.
They are unaware of droughts, haven’t heard about the dairy crisis, don’t care when the actual runner bean season is and simply want to pay less for the things they eat. Not because they are innately wasteful, but because the strip-lit aisles of supermarket shopping have insulated them, like a choking coat of clingfilm, from the reality of food production. They are scared of food, because they’ve been taught to be so.
And who brought up this generation of young, wasteful, clueless food consumers? Who invented intensive farming, ready meals, best before dates and 2-4-1 offers? The very generation now bemoaning us as “wasteful millennials” of course. We didn’t invent this — our parents did. They bought microwaves, cellophane dinners, sliced bread, pre-chopped mushrooms, oven chips and crispy pancakes in the mistaken belief that it would make their evenings easier, their meals quicker and their lives better. Except, it didn’t. It simply led to a mountain of wasted food and a generation of bankrupt farmers.
In fact, it’s just possible that social media’s fascination with food has actually made young people more enthusiastic about cooking. Sharing recipe ideas, talking about ingredients, taking an interest in where your food was grown, your chicken killed, your avocado flown in from, has all been made not just possible but socially acceptable thanks to my generation’s online existence.
Of course, there are still massive problems. Whenever I see an advert for food delivery services that send you a boxed set of ingredients for a specific recipe I want to go and hide down a hole. If you can’t handle an onion and bottle of soy sauce without it coming pre-chopped and packaged, then I’m not sure you’re ready to be around naked flames yet.
But the real deciding factors in whether or not people waste food aren’t to do with age or social media: they’re about income, local amenities, shift patterns, if you were ever taught to cook and how much you care about the environment. And as is too often the case, what we’re actually talking about here is education and economy — not Instagram and twentysomethings. So blame my generation if you want. Bemoan our “food porn” and our exotic dinners. But maybe, just maybe, you should take a look in your own fridge first.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd