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2021-06-23 12:00:13 Voices

According to the United Nations, roughly one-third of the world’s food, including almost half of fresh produce, is wasted before it reaches the table. In 2016, researchers with the Chinese Academy of Science and WWF estimated the country’s cities were wasting up to 18 million metric tons of food a year — enough to feed as many as 50 million people.

Much of this food is perfectly edible. Five years ago, when I was a student at McGill University’s Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, a classmate and I would go around the neighborhood collecting misshapen or near-expiration fruits and vegetables from local supermarkets and cook them for other students in a communal kitchen on campus. It was the same basic principle found in many food banks, and after returning to China in 2017, we decided to see if we could set up a food bank of our own.

Food banks are a relatively new concept in China. By 2017, there was just one food bank distributing near-expiration foods in the entire country, and other attempts to operate food banks across South China had failed. Part of the problem was a lack of resources: Traditional food banks require the kind of warehouses and logistics capacity that social organizations often lack. Also contributing to the challenge was the ingrained idea that near-expiration food products are of poor quality. Often, even when retailers do agree to give food away, they find no takers. 

With these factors in mind, we set up Pomme de Terre (PDT) as a “virtual food bank.” In order to reduce costs and the carbon emissions involved in transportation, PDT does not operate warehouses or have its own logistics arm. Instead, we redistribute donated food directly to nearby public welfare organizations, including social groups, community service centers, volunteer organizations, and schools for students with special needs. 

Much of the food we receive comes directly from factories or retailers. There are commercial reasons for donating old or leftover foods: Shopping malls and supermarkets have relatively high requirements for their products’ shelf lives and some goods are preemptively taken off the shelves even before they expire. But food near the end of its shelf life is not completely without economic value. For instance, merchants can sell it at a reduced price to animal feed manufacturers, or on online sales platforms like Taobao or Haoshiqi, a website specializing in the sale of near-expiration foods. In fact, we’ve found that retailers who choose to donate to us generally support the concept of food banks and hope that we will pass on their products to those in need.

A significant proportion of our donations are actually import goods. Imported produce has to clear a series of complicated customs procedures before being allowed into the country. Sometimes, delays in these procedures mean that the produce is already close to the end of its shelf life by the time it makes it into domestic retailers’ hands, forcing them to dispose of the goods quickly.

Last October, PDT received more than 2,000 jars of kimchi 30 days from its expiration date from a South Korean food distributor based in Guangzhou. Distributing it was a tall order: First, it had to be kept at a low temperature, and therefore needed to be distributed as quickly as possible; second, kimchi is spicy, and spicy foods are not a major part of Guangzhou natives’ diets. We ended up transferring the jars to a local labor union that works with migrant workers, many of whom are from the central Hunan province, a region known for its love of spicy food. The union had hundreds of people lining up to collect the kimchi within just 15 minutes of its arrival.

But we weren’t completely satisfied. In this particular case, each person took an average of six jars of kimchi. Were they able to finish it all in the 30 days before it expired? We were doubtful. This sort of “secondary waste” is a common problem for food banks. 

Another challenge is how to increase our supply of the kinds of food people really need. Since May 2017, we have distributed a total of 45 tons of food, about 60% of which included products nearing the end of their shelf lives. But the bulk of the near-expiration food products we receive aren’t staples like cereals or oil. Rather, they are packaged snacks and frozen foods, such as rice cakes, bread, dumplings, and chips.

Such snacks have low nutritional value. Is redistributing these goods among the community truly beneficial for residents’ health? The staples that families in serious financial difficulty need most, meanwhile, often either have longer shelf lives and are therefore rarely donated or, in the case of fresh produce, need to be turned around quickly with little time for targeting.

Fundamentally, the key to curbing waste lies in on-demand production.

In keeping with the principle of reducing waste, PDT currently accepts as many and whatever kind of donations we can reasonably redistribute. Yet, we are also trying to encourage donations from a greater diversity of food vendors, such as farms and bakeries, so that our recipients can enjoy a more balanced and nutritious diet.

In April of this year, lawmakers passed an Anti-Food Waste Law. Since then, local governments have begun to focus on establishing local food donation systems, while the public has paid more attention to the issue of food waste. Food banks are now springing up across the country.

That’s encouraging, but food banks are too far down the distribution chain to solve the problem of food waste. Fundamentally, the key to curbing waste lies in on-demand production — that is, in avoiding oversupply. What we can do, however, is educate the public about the problem. As food banks become increasingly visible within communities, their very presence may wake residents up to the problem of food waste — and the benefits of ensuring every table has what it needs, and no more. 

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

(Header image: Vectorlab/VectorStock/People Visual)