How we waste food and how we report it

Russ Grayson
Jun 13, 2020 · 8 min read

An article raises questions and highlights solutions to how citizen journalists report food issues…

It looks like there is food a-plenty, but how much will end up as waste? As food-aware people, the members the Candelo Bulk Wholefoods Co-op on the NSW South Coast are less likely to discard their leftovers to landfill.

FOOD, its growing, preparation and waste offer a plethora of story ideas to citizen journalists reporting on current social, environmental and economic issues.

Whatever angle on food we take, how we word our story can be as important as what we say.

How do we avoid putting readers off?

We have something to say but how do we say it without putting readers off? How do we make generalised statements without alienating readers and weakening our message? That’s something to think about when we write articles, and especially when we write social media posts.

Here’s an example. I’m not arguing with the facts being reported because they are important to reducing food waste, nor do I suggest the author is actually blaming everyone, however the way the message is constructed has the potential to be read as doing that.

“According to the latest figures, in 2016–17 Australia produced 7.3 million tonnes of food waste. And every year, each one of us sends almost 300kg of food to landfill.” That’s 1.325 kilograms of food per person each week, according to RMIT University food waste researcher, Dianne McGrath.

We see singly all-inclusive statements like this time and again on social media and also in other publications. Someone makes a generalised statement that reads as though it is all-inclusive. Readers respond, saying they are tired of being blamed for something they might have been trying to fix for years, perhaps decades. The writer comments back, saying those people are not the target of their statement. The commentators respond, saying the writer could have made that clear and not assume readers would know that. And so it goes.

This is something for citizen journalists to remember about making sweeping generalisations. There can be many exceptions and they might not like being lumped in with the guilty. I mention this because I have seen it time after time on social media.

Most readers will understand that Dianne is not blaming all of us, however her message might be read as doing that. It is a generalisation drawn from statistics. Statistics ignore exceptions. Dianne individualises the statistic to ground it at an understandable level and to make it more graphic.

Let’s be a little more nuanced with Dianne’s statement because nuance is what is needed so we don’t put readers off. We, “each one of us”, don’t send 300kg of food waste to landfill. Some might send more, many send less. That’s because the food waste message has got across over the past decade. Many people send very little to landfill, preferring to compost the stuff to turn it into garden fertiliser or feed it to their chooks. We can make facts like this clear when we write.

I became familiar with the food waste issue when working in local government supporting community food gardening and landcare, and later through my association with sustainability education for a Sydney Eastern Suburbs council. There, I found people to be astounded by the volume of food waste and wanted to reduce their contribution. Many took immediate steps to do that.

The assumption pit

Ascribing universal blame when it is not intended is based on the risky business of making assumptions.

What does it matter? Generalised, all-inclusive statements discourage people who are already doing the right thing. They feel they are blamed no matter what they do to diminish a problem. We see the same thing among climate campaigners when they say that ’we’ must do this or that to to reduce our carbon footprint, or ‘we’ are reponsible for climate change. There’s no argument about the gist of what they say, it’s just that many people are doing what they can, yet the way the statements are phrased implicates those who are part of the solution as just as guilty as those why are not. It’s about how we communicate.

There is an implicit understanding in such comments that those who are doing whatever the right thing is will know the message is not aimed at them. That’s an assumption, and like all assumptions it represents how the person making it understands the world but not necessarily as others comprehend it. We see this assumption time after time, and we see people offended by it commenting and the writer having to explain that they assumed people would know they are excepted from what they write.

Acknowledging exception is as simple as saying “Other than those who are already taking action…” or something like that. That done, people will know they are excluded. It is interesting how seldom that is done.

Assigning universal blame is unhelpful. Campaigners, and citizen journalists, need to be more discriminating as to whom they assign blame.

Individualising an issue takes focus off institutional responsibility

All-inclusive comment does something else which the international development worker and environmental advocate, Helena Norberg-Hodge, mentioned to me: it individualises what are really social and institutional shortcomings.

Government and industry are sometimes accused of doing this to deflect blame from themselves and to put responsibility onto individuals. They are not the only ones. Environmental organisations have also done this.

Sure, individuals share a good part of the blame for wasting food, as Dianne says, but what about institutions like business and government? There are exceptions, most notably those food businesses donating surplus food to food rescue organisations like Second Bite or Sydney’s Oz Harvest, however business and industry bodies have collectively done little to reduce food waste. Australian government at all levels has been active in public education around food waste and has mounted campaigns to reduce it.

Reporting the story

What Dianne says is pertinent in a country where, according to her article in The Conversation, “an estimated 5 per cent of Australians experience food insecurity — inadequate access to supply of and use of food.”

This was a topic that came up again and again when I was a team member with the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance, a food advocacy that in its support for Sydney-region farmers and eaters, highlighted the plight of those with too little nourishing food to eat. The problem, we realised, was not in food production but in distributing food to the people who needed it. That is an economic and political problem.

A knowledge of the food supply chain, its production methods, impediments and advantages is necessary for citizen journalists who write about food security, agriculture or the hospitality industry.

Check the figures

As citizen journalists we usually don’t have the contacts and resources to discover first-hand information. That’s why we rely on reports such as Dianne McGrath’s and on reputable sources of information such as The Conversation.

What we can do is check the published information ourselves. When I checked Dianne’s figure of five percent of the Australian population experiencing food insecurity, I came up with figures of four percent ranging to an estimate in the Foodbank Hunger Report 2019 of 21 percent of the population experiencing “at least one time in the last year when they didn’t have enough food”.

We also check who the author of the research is. Are they credible people in what they write? Are they associated with an education institution? Are they researchers in the field? Do they work for a think-tank or business and how likely is that to influence what they report and omit?

They do not have to be academics or researchers to be authoritative. They might have no academic credentials but know a lot about the topic because they work in the area or have followed it over time, They might be journalists who have reported on the topic for some time and built up an extensive knowledge of it. All can be credible sources of information.

Stories offer new story ideas

A single story in a blog or magazine cannot tell all about a topic, however it might suggest other stories, perhaps those focusing on issues associated with the story but which were not explored in it. Stories hint at new stories.

I learned this when I started writing about the fair food movement some years ago. It was not a unitary movement, and still isn’t, which meant that there were many stories making it up. I explored them in a series on the now-legacy website: https://pacific-edge.info/category/journal/the-alt-food-movement/

For citizen journalists, Dianne’s food and food waste recommendations are well-worth considering as ideas for new stories. How-to articles and solutions-oriented stories could be developed around them:

  • buy only what you need and will use—stories about how to buy food and shopping the supermarket periphery, to borrow an idea from American food writer Michael Pollan about buying less-processed foods in the supermarket
  • if you run a food business, divert excess consumable food to food rescue organisations and charities that feed the hungry—potential stories on this theme are about food waste quantities and how they vary over the years, what the food rescue organisations do with the food, how the organisations find financial and voluntary support, who gets the rescued food and how; these are essentially solutions stories
  • where possible, give food waste to animals such as backyard chooks—stories about keeping chooks at home, local government regulations about keeping them and how they could be improved, if needed
  • compost food in your backyard or a community garden—stories about gardening and composting techniques, precautions and compost problem solving
  • allow ample time to eat, as more waste is generated during rushed mealtimes—stories about people and how they reduce food waste; the conviviality of the table in the household economy.

What recommendations would you add to Dianne’s list?

What has been your experieince with these things?

Read Dianne’s article here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-12/what-a-simulated-mars-mission-taught-me-about-food-waste/12140680

Citizen Journalism

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