This is a guest article written by Food Tank Advisory Board Member Jonathan Bloom. Bloom is the author of American Wasteland and creator of the blog “Wasted Food.”
The French take their food seriously—and now, this spring’s significant cultural and political shifts have confirmed that they don’t look too kindly on wasting it.
In mid-April, a government-appointed committee released a proposal to tackle food waste in France. The Fight Against Food Waste (Lutte Contre Le Gaspillage Alimentaire; follow with #GaspillageAlimentaire) suggests 36 ways to do just that. The French Parliament will likely debate each one separately with the intention of distilling those ideas into a national policy on food waste. If that happens, the food conservation movement will make history.
“It’s the first proposition for a comprehensive national policy on food waste that brings together a lot of different potential measures to reduce food waste throughout the whole food chain,” said Marie Mourad, a PhD student at Sciences Po in Paris writing her dissertation on initiatives around food waste.
Member of Parliment Guillaume Garot—who isn’t afraid of mixing it up at wasted-food charity kitchen Disco Soupe—led the committee in proposing a variety of measures. One of the most powerful ideas is the suggested ban on supermarkets throwing away food, which comes after a related 200,000-signature petition. That idea, together with mandatory donations to charities that request the food and extended tax deductions for donations, could change the excess food equation in retail. Far-reaching policy would handle inedible excess, involving the creation of a food waste hierarchy: feeding animals, then creating energy, and finally composting.
“Freegans” may encounter empty dumpsters if all of the above policies happen, but their actions may have legal protections, thanks to a proposal that would essentially make dumpster diving legal. Following a recent, high-profile case in France, this idea would offer clemency to dumpster divers under a proposed “recovering is not stealing” ordinance.
Meanwhile, building on supermarket giant Intermarché’s popular Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign, the report pushes for more markets for nontraditional produce. And at the farm level, there are several proposals to promote and sustain gleaning of unharvested crops.
The report suggests adapting the size of restaurant portions to consumers’ needs and encouraging a pay-by-weight option, two ideas that seem as un-French as they are interesting. Meanwhile, the committee seeks better data on how much France wastes, more public education on the issue, and even a public agency to fight food waste (à la Britain’s WRAP) to potentially do both. Only time will tell what ideas gain traction, though. Mourad expects the supermarket food waste ban and dumpster diving protections will stir the least controversy.
The annual cost of food waste in France, according to the report, is more than US$22.4 billion annually, and about US$450 for the average family. In that context and with a strong tradition of gleaning—celebrated in art and film—France is exhibiting an appetite for curbing food waste. To which I say, “Bon appétit!”
How much change is French culture willing to stomach? The best indicator may come from an unlikely source—a proposal to mainstream “le doggy-bag.” As in most of Europe, taking leftovers home from restaurants tends to be viewed as, er, a bit gauche. The practice faces a “cultural obstacle,” Garot told the press, but 75 percent of those polled recently said they’d like to take food home from restaurants. In that changed milieu, the main question may be whether to use the French sac-à-emporter (literally, “to-go bag”) or a hybrid term like “le doggy-bag” or “le gourmet bag.”
While Americans are miles ahead in loving restaurant leftovers—or at least taking them home—U.S. policymakers would do well to emulate both the ideas and esprit of this new French food waste movement. And then, on both sides of the Atlantic, we may soon bond over the shared values of “Liberté, égalité, le Doggy.”