As I research the consequences of food waste, I am reminded of the Pulitzer-winning photograph The Struggling Girl shot by the late photojournalist Kevin Carter. Published by The New York Times in 1994, it depicted a visibly malnourished child who collapsed from exhaustion on her way to a nearby United Nations feeding centre. In the picture, a vulture is shown looming in the barren backdrop, clearly lying in wait. (It was clarified later in 2007 by Spanish newspaper El Mundo that the girl was, in fact, a boy named Kong Nyong, who, according to Nyong’s father, survived the famine but ultimately passed away due to ‘fevers’.)
It was the early 2000s when I chanced upon Carter’s work for the first time—I felt discomfited by what I saw, even though I was too young to understand its bleaker connotations then. Now, older and somewhat less ignorant, I find myself haunted by guilt and shame when I leave a meal unfinished, worse still when I see it untouched and thrown out without a second thought.
We are a combined problem.— Suzanne Mooney
“How often does a child die of hunger somewhere in the world?” asked Suzanne Mooney, former BBC journalist and co-founder of non-profit organisation The Lost Food Project (TLFP)—which serves as a food bank that collects quality surplus food from various sources and distributes them to communities in need—during her 2018 TED Talk at Universiti Malaysia Pahang.
The answer, to which her student participants audibly expressed their disbelief in the video, was a horrifying “every five to seven seconds”.
“We are a combined problem,” Mooney states. “Take the panic buying that happened in the early stages of the pandemic, for example. Though it temporarily decreased the amount of food waste we used to generate before Covid-19—what with people clearing out the aisles when news broke out about how trade was being put on hold as ports shut down because of the lockdown—those very buyers found themselves with way more food than they can finish in one sitting.
“So, to supply this surge in demand, manufacturers, as well as distributors, end up ordering more products, which then leads to a glut in the supply chain as people are now going back to normal buying behaviour once the initial psychological panic has passed.”