A new Argentine venture allowing people to freely take food deposited in public-access fridges is the latest grass-roots initiative to try and tackle the interconnected problems of hunger and food waste.
“Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of the poor and the hungry,” said Pope Francis back in 2013.
The issue of food waste is increasingly recognised as a severe global problem, with some 1.3bn tonnes of food produced for human consumption lost each year. This is an especially prominent issue in developing region where rates of poverty and hunger are typically higher.
According to the FAO there are 47m people – or around 8% of the population – suffering from hunger in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. And yet, says the FAO, the region produces more than enough food to feed everybody.
Tania Santiváñez, the Plant Protection Officer within the FAO, tells The Indy that the average rate of food loss in Latin America is equivalent to 223kg per person per year.
It is in this shocking context that new initiatives have emerged in Argentina to try and address the unequal distribution and needless waste of food.
Federico Ríos is a local restaurateur and director of a new project called ‘La Heladera Social’ (The Social Fridge). The idea behind the initiative is to give excess food to those less fortunate, thereby reducing waste and satisfying one of the most basic of human needs. Those in need can help themselves to the food in the fridges, which are placed outside of the restaurants and stocked with unsold products, not leftovers. The slogan, Ríos says, is “only take what you need”.
The Social Fridge began earlier this year in the north-western province of Tucumán, which Ríos says is beset by poverty that has intensified as inflation has spiralled in recent months. “This has led to a profound level of necessity for many people… not only the poorest people, but also retirees,” he explains. “You mustn’t just turn and look the other way, but try to help.”
He says the initial experiment was a success, and the movement has evolved quickly from there. “At the start the idea was for the social fridge to stock the food we no longer needed as a business. The most remarkable aspect was the immediate participation of the neighbourhood.”
Locals quickly latched on to the innovative proposal and within days began filling the fridge with their own supplies. “We had never thought this project would interest any of our neighbours, but now 90% of food is donated by them,” says Ríos. “Whether it be a little bit of rice, chicken, noodles, or bit of dinner, don’t throw it away, as it could be food for someone else.”
The success of the Social Fridge is evident in its rapid spread across Argentina. From Tucumán, fridges began popping up in other northern provinces like Salta, Jujuy, and Chaco, and the initiative has even found its way to Buenos Aires. In Ciudadela, a gritty suburb just outside the capital, a social fridge is now operating outside a school.
Despite this expansion, Ríos says he is realistic about the scope of the programme: “We can feed 50 people here, it’s on a very small scale. It’s a simply a fridge.” Yet he states the the social fridge aims to go as far as possible, “to distribute social fridges as we receive them. We will look at working with consumer rights, public healthcare, and really how we can mount other projects in and around the social fridge.”
While projects like the social fridge encourage consumers and restaurants to better use and distribute their food, the problem of waste is not limited to these groups.
“We must differentiate between wastage and loss,” the FAO’s Santiváñez explains. “Loss is everything that diminishes in the production, the post-production and the processing stage in the supply chain… waste is what occurs in retail and household consumption.”
FAO estimates suggest producers lose just as much food as consumers waste (28%), while another 22% is lost during handling and storage. In Latin America, half of all fruits and vegetables are lost before they even reach consumers. “Retail food waste alone in Latin America can satisfy the nutritional needs of over 30 million people, which equates to 64% of the people that are hungry in the region,” claims Santiváñez. “It is nearly enough get rid of hunger in the region.”
John Morton, Senior Urban Environment Specialist for the Latin America and the the Caribbean at World Bank Group says is that the French model for tackling food waste is now being debated at the highest level of government in the region. “What they’ve said is all usable food should be donated to food banks and all the rest should be composted. That has been approved in France and is being discussed in Argentina now.”
Another voluntary approach he mentions is “where the local governments start working with the supermarkets to better funnel any usable food to food banks, with the same kind of results, to separate waste to allow it to go to the right treatment system.” Morton says he has already taken part in ventures in the cities of Mar del Plata, Salta, and Rosario to build bridges between the state and private food retailers.
Morton also describes other policies implemented in different countries as important examples: “On the waste side, 15-30% of waste going into landfill is food. In Europe they produce bio-gas, which in Sweden they use for public transport.”
While policy discussions continue, grassroots initiatives continue to pop up to promote change from the bottom up. At Disco Sopa – a local version of the movement born in France – volunteers gather fruits and vegetables that are being discarded by local grocery stores, and then use them to prepare soups and other dishes to hand out for free at regular events.
Celebrity chef Narda Lepes has launched several youtube videos in order to advise on different ways to cut down on food waste and loss. Her videos have also patented the #ValoremosLosAlimentos (‘let’s value food’), to depict how such changes must embed themselves in Argentina’s social fabric. She notes that every piece of fruit or vegetable that is lost or thrown away includes the additional waste of water and other resources that went into its cultivation.
Ríos adds that the Social Fridge’s wider work is focused on the future, and education. “We’re currently involved with children at school, who can participate in this solidarity project. The necessary change to counteract this [problem of food wastage] begins with the youth.”
In the meantime, he keeps urging more people to get involved. “The social fridge is not a single notion, rather it’s part of a wider project,” he says. “We’ve defined this as a free project, which means we haven’t designed our own brand or emblem. I often say to people who write to me, ‘you don’t need to ask for permission, you’ve got to implement it’. We’ve lit the first flame and now it is in the hands of the rest to carry on.”