By Anonymous Academic – Food Waste & Insecurity

Christmas is a time of heightened contradictions. While the goose fattens, many prepare to loosen their belts in anticipation of the feast- and don’t forget to put a penny in the old man’s hat. Or don’t give it to him directly because he’ll probably spend it unwisely; rather give it to formalised charity. But I’m not going to write here about debates over begging and alternatives to begging, in part because I’m acutely aware that I lack the insight and experience to know what’s best for someone who’s lost their home or is at risk of such. But the guilt-appeasing penny in the hat points to some of the realities of living in unequal societies. 

I’d like to share two travel experiences from this year that brought home to me the contradictions of wealth and deprivation, and the questionable merits of charitable attempts to resolve these contradictions. Winter shouldn’t be the only time to be concerned about homelessness, but it is obvious how much harder it is to survive outdoors, and not even Gary Neville can solve that. 

When visiting food waste organisations in San Francisco I was told that the homelessness I was witnessing was in part because people were drawn to the warm climes. Indeed, I met Richard in a downtown park, sleeping in the Sun. But it wasn’t all California dreamin’. He told me he’d been trying to get back to his family in the East for years, save for the Greyhound fare.

‘People are mean here’, he said. He’d been attacked, had his money and possessions stolen repeatedly, expressing the vulnerability to violence experienced by so many homeless people. The numbers of tent dwellers, soup kitchen queues and people with suppurating wounds and serious and unmanaged mental and physical health problems visible in the street could surely not be explained by the good weather.

It speaks of a welfare system where an ‘able bodied man without dependents’ cannot get any financial assistance, where being black and having a criminal record even further discredit the hallowed American mythology of ‘pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.’

But while it’s so important to understand the systemic roots of homelessness (especially a broader picture of precarious housing in cities), I wanted to make a simpler observation from my time in San Francisco. It’s a story as old as the birth of cities themselves, which probably saw a particular birth of social inequality through the division of labour and the accumulation of surpluses. It’s the extreme wealth that is often ignored when we focus on extreme poverty and deprivation.

I travelled with Nancy, a sassy retired teacher, to the headquarters of one of the many tech firms that’s moved from Silicon Valley to gentrifying districts in the city such as La Mission. To keep their staff satisfied (*cough* working long hours), the internet giants employ chefs to produce 3 generous meals a day, regardless of who’s expected in work.

The inevitable leftovers are picked up in giant silver trays, sometimes to the point of not being able to fit in Nancy’s car. That day we drove them to a church in the Mission where homeless men sleep at night between the pews. Nancy warned me to watch out for human excrement in the alley we use to reach it, telling of just one of the privations of lacking a home: access to clean water and sanitation, and becoming symbolically associated with the filth you’ve been forced to live amidst. From the pinball machines and help-yourself fridges of craft beer and fresh fruit salads of the tech firms to the shit-strewn alleys that house the city’s many homeless people, it struck me that while the techies and hobos are essentially eating from the same plate, they will rarely meet. As the tech firms encroach into physical space and exceed the usual limits of capitalist competition, others remain squeezed into ever-tighter and evermore precarious spaces, barely seen.

Far away, both literally and in many other ways, I was in India recently for a friend’s wedding. I asked what would happen to the vast vats of uneaten food provided as a vital part of wedding feasts designed to showcase families’ wealth, munificence and social networks. A friend of the groom assured me that now there’s a plethora of organisations ready to pick up wedding leftovers and deliver them to homeless shelters. I remembered reading about such NGOs on an email group devoted to thinking critically about food waste. “Do the homeless only eat when there’s a wedding, then?”, I asked wryly. “Oh, there’s always a wedding going on”, comes the reply. Another example of excessive wealth alongside, and in some ways justified by a relationship to extreme poverty, where the hungry are always imagined to be or are in fact there in the background to gratefully soak up the leftovers.

Back in the UK, a similar contradiction can be perhaps glimpsed in the stranglehold of very few companies over the UK’s food supply, and the waste that is co-productive of their profit yet seen as a valid food source for those they exclude. Waste exists as the shadowy underbelly of economic growth and development, as beautifully explained in David Giles’ notion of the ‘abject symbiosis’ between the wastes of wealth and the solidarity work of organisations like Food Not Bombs, which have seized upon this waste as a way to both reveal and revalue food that is tossed as soon as its exchange-value expires to make way for newly-stocked shelves.

Over the past year, UK supermarkets have started lining up to announce their food waste figures (usually alongside a subtle blaming of the consumers whose shopping and eating habits they’ve done so much to shape) and to donate small amounts of store-level food waste to charitable food efforts. This solves neither the problems of poverty (though it can save charities money and perhaps fuel communal cooking and eating experiences) nor of the oversupply of food that leads to waste. If we were to eat the entire food supply of the UK we would be grossly obese; we simply don’t need that much (and continue to import the water and soil health of drought-stricken nations that struggle with domestic food security- as Feedback Global have usefully researched). 

These tweaks are too small, the solutions must be systemic. The social issues alluded to here are multiple – the proliferation of pay-as-you-feel cafes, food banks and community kitchens provide space for new encounters of homelessness, racism, asylum, austerity policy, the loss of food skills even. Just to take homelessness, Manchester is one city where divisions between support organisations, council controversies (following the homeless camp) and media representations can detract from engaging with a growing homeless population – sleeping in the cold and rainy streets with all of the attendant dangers this incurs.

Manchester’s Homelessness Charter is an attempt that I watch with reserved hope as a commitment to holistic, rights-based, cross-sector solutions specific to the diverse needs of people living in the streets. This includes reflecting on the multiple challenges that lead to homelessness: precarious housing, a punitive welfare system, debt and financial exclusion. Long term, entrenched, complex issues that no soup kitchen can come close to eradicating, but to those who argue that giving money or equipment to those with so little simply exacerbates the problem are, I worry, assuming that alternative, systemic solutions are available to all.