Trying to teach old dogs new tricks

Activist movement aims to get consumers, stores and restaurants to think about the amount of edible food that ends up in the rubbish bin

Danes waste food. A lot of food. About 16 billion kroner’s worth each year, according to Stop Wasting Food (Stop Spild af Mad), a food activism movement founded by Selina Juul. 

Juul travels around the world speaking passionately about what she sees as the insanity of food being thrown out daily by consumers, supermarkets, restaurants and bakers, or simply left to rot on the vine because farmers in some regions lack the resources and infrastructure to get it to market.

Tonnes of food that Juul contends could actually put an end to world hunger are thrown out in Denmark – and worldwide – every day.

For example, a shop owner will toss an entire case of tomatoes if there is a bad one in the mix, even though the others are perfectly edible; entire pallets filled with canned food are taken to a dump because the labels aren’t printed in Danish; farmers plough entire fields of lettuce back into the earth because they aren’t big enough to ship to market; and fishing trawlers toss up to 40 percent of their catch back overboard – some of it too damaged by nets to survive – because it isn’t ‘the right kind of fish’.

“Nearly 15 million children die of starvation every year,” Juul said. “This food could save their lives.”

Juul’s organisation has had some success in taking on big food wasters like supermarkets. Its work encouraged the Rema 1000 chain to drop the common three-for-the-price-of-two type promotions, which Juul believes contribute to food waste.

“These promotions result in so much waste,” said Juul. “A customer only needs one package of meat but buys three to get a discount. They use one, put one in the freezer, but the third gets tossed because they have no room for it.”

Juul said that every Dane throws away 63 kilos of food each year that they have never even used. Rema now offers the same discount on one item that it used to offer on the package deal, and other Danish supermarkets are starting to follow Rema’s example.

Whether it is private consumers throwing out food that is still fit for consumption or large supermarkets whose policies encourage wasteful spending, food activist Selina Juul wants Danes to stop wasting so much food (Photo: Fintan Damgaard)

Juul believes that it is just as important to raise the awareness level of every consumer as it is to take on the food and service industries. 

Recognising that restaurants are a major culprit in wasting food, Stop Wasting Food conducted a survey with pollsters Gallup to see if Danes would be willing to adopt a practice common in many other places: asking for a ‘doggy bag’ to carry home leftovers, rather than having the restaurant scrape the uneaten food into the waste bin.

The survey revealed that Danes are uncomfortable asking for doggy bags – just 12 percent of those polled said they would feel comfortable asking a waiter to get them a bag or a box to take their leftovers home. 

However, a small change in practice by restaurants could make a big difference. Over 60 percent of poll respondents said they would take their leftovers if their server made the offer and then packaged the food to be discreetly taken out.

Food giant Unilever Food Solutions has joined the Stop Wasting Food movement to start changing attitudes.

“There is still a taboo attached to asking for doggy bags in Denmark, so it is important that the waiters and restaurants get involved,” said Unilever spokesperson Stine Larsen. Over 200 restaurants across the country have joined in the effort to get customers to take leftovers home, with more signing on every day.

A visit to a local cafe in Hillerød revealed, however, that the movement still has a long way to go.

The customers at four out of five tables said that they “would probably not” ask for a doggy bag, and that they would not take food home even if the waiter suggested it.

“It’s just gross,” said Anja Patterson. “I don’t want to carry old food home on my bike.”

Patterson echoed the feelings of many of the others who said that doggie bags would not do much to help the food waste issue when stores and bakeries throw out tonnes of food every day.

“I used to work at a bakery,” she said. “It is unbelievable how much is wasted.”

Juul acknowledges that doggie bags are just one small part of a much larger and more complex picture.

“It is one small drop in the ocean that leads to another drop and then another,” she said. “We are trying to create awareness that 140,000 tonnes of food are thrown out each year by restaurants, canteens and large kitchens.”

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