Food waste: time to banish our FORO (fear of running out)

It is the custom in some Arab countries to keep serving your guests food until they indicate, by way of leaving a significant amount on their plate, that their appetite has been well and truly sated.

I learnt this the hard way when dining with a family in Morocco. In that clumsily deferential way, still so characteristic of the English, I had thought it bad manners to leave anything on my plate.

And so the food kept arriving. As if by magic, my host Fatima served up course after course after course. I began to feel guilty that she had gone to so much effort, but also irritated that she had.

Where did she think I was putting it all? Would the end of dinner be signaled only once I had passed out – or vomited – on the kilim rug?

It was when I heard a creak from the exquisitely carved, but finely wrought, wooden chair beneath me that I finally plucked up the courage to leave my fourth dish of lamb tagine uneaten.

When I saw the look on Fatima’s face – an amalgam of pride, relief and gratitude – I knew my eagerness to please had been ill-conceived. She could go to sleep now. And, judging by the warmth of her smile, she still had enough food to feed her children.

Fear of running out (FORO) is a universal phenomenon. I remember my mum making an unholy amount of roast potatoes whenever we had guests for Sunday lunch. ‘Just in case’.

It goes deep. Numerous references to the feeding and watering of guests, especially strangers, can be found in scripture, which suggests FORO is informed by a sense of moral obligation.

Mix in a bit of scarcity anxiety (the ration book is still part of our living memory) and social anxiety (keeping up with the Joneses) and you have a sure-fire recipe for prandial panic!

But another kind of anxiety might rid us of this delusion.

Food waste has become a symbol of over-consumption and it’s something that more and more people – including meeting and event planners – are feeling guilty about.

Not only is this a social and ethical guilt – more than one in ten people in the world are undernourished according to the Food Aid Foundation – but also an environmental one.

Wasting food means wasting energy. Just think of what it takes to grow, harvest, transport and package food. And when all this food ends up going to landfill it rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent, albeit shorter-lasting, than carbon dioxide.

According to the World Wildlife Organisation one-third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste. That’s, ‘equal to about 1.3 billion tons of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, seafood, and grains that either never leave the farm, get lost or spoiled during distribution, or are thrown away in hotels, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, or home kitchens…In the US alone, the production of lost or wasted food generates the equivalent of 37 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions’.

Nowhere is food waste more noticeable than at events.

We are all familiar with the buffet lunch that keeps on giving. The food trolleys as abundant at the end of lunch as they were at the start. Well, it doesn’t happen by accident. A meeting planner ordered that amount of food and it’s probably fair to say they had FORO. Mercifully, it looks as though things are changing.

According to the Meeting Room of the Future Report 2019 by IACC, the international association of conference centres, 62 per cent of planners now consider how a venue manages its food waste before booking. And more than half (54 per cent) want to know whether or not a venue is buying food from a sustainable source.

But it’s not just the responsibility of meeting planners.

Venues should be more willing to make a judgement call on food volumes based on the estimated number of guests they are expected to serve. Not simply follow clients’ orders. Participants and delegates have a role to play, too, by making it clear to event organisers that they don’t want to see mountains of food left at the end of breaks. In short, we need to create a virtuous circle of responsibility where we can all agree that enough is enough and too much is too much.

*FORO will be discussed on day two of The Meeting Show; 27th June, 12-30 – 13.30, in The Olympia Grand Room.