Behavior Change
Changing What We Eat:
The Role of Junk Food in Our Global Food Crisis

Millions of people struggled to afford traditional staple foods like maize, rice and wheat when global food prices spiked between 2007 and 2011, and a recent study found that in 10 countries studied, they switched to western-style processed “junk food” alternatives high in sugars, fats and salt.

Junk food is also still prevalent in the United States (U.S.): According to the National Center for Health Statistics at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a third (34.9 percent) of adults 20 years and older are obese. More than 8 percent of infants under the age of 2 were considered overweight, while 16.9 percent of children ages 2 to 19 were obese. These statistics have remained high since 2003, despite an increasing array of new “healthy” foods on the market and dietary fads.

All the while, fresh food is being thrown out as it nears its “sell by” and expiry dates. Despite a plethora of redistribution efforts popping up all over the world, organizations working to tackle food waste can barely keep up. One such group, called the Real Junk Food Project, is intervening between two and 10 tons of food a day in Leeds, England alone, and has about 125 Real Junk Food cafes across the United Kingdom (U.K.), Israel and Australia – with an additional 16 soon to launch in the U.S.

The amount of food waste – thought to be as much as a third of production in the U.S. and U.K. – is staggering, especially when discussed alongside the sudden rise in price volatility among basic foods in recent years.

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Oxfam recently released an in-depth look at the effects of the global food crisis in the report, “Precarious Lives: Food, Work and Care After the Global Food Crisis” (pdf download), and found that people resorted to working much harder and longer to earn enough to feed their families, resulting in much less family time, and buying more convenience and fast foods as they moved around for work.

“The mobile eating phenomenon appeared most common among men in growing economies, rural and urban – some because they had no family to go to for meals, others because they could eat better out than at home. Others still found community and camaraderie in the public restaurants and snack bars that formed part of their working day,” wrote the authors.

“People were visibly working harder to stay fed … [But] even by working much harder, and even when wages started to rise, people could not feed their families well.

“Much of what people did at the time of the price spikes was familiar crisis-coping behaviour: substituting less costly items, cutting out more expensive items and replacing them with filling foods, sacrificing safety, taste and familiarity for volume and price.”

Families were followed over four years so that the researchers to observe changes in eating habits and determining the reasons behind it. They found that people moved towards more packaged and purchased food due to a mix of practical reasons, including increased urbanization and transitioning to more hazardous, undignified and insecure jobs, as well as psychological reasons, including the accessibility and addictive nature of junk food with its high sugar, fat and salt content.

The existence – and explosive success – of the Real Junk Food Project makes it clear that part of the issue with today’s food system is the challenge posed by logistics. While the U.K. might have a glut of food waste, it would be impossible to transport it all to the countries most dramatically effected by food price volatility. On a local level, though, redistribution efforts are proving to be an important and effective element of the fight to reduce food waste.

Supermarket chains including Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Ocado are working with the Real Junk Food Project to reroute food they used to throw out, and send it to Real Junk Food cafes. Cafes can request a welcome pack and sign an agreement, and then are able to feed people the surplus food. They must also follow a few rules: they must feed everyone (not just poor people), and customers should only pay what they feel the meal is worth. If they have no money, the Project suggests that they can volunteer labor and skills instead.

The Project further supports the poor through its new Fuel for School program. At Parklands Primary School in Seacroft, one of the poorest parts of Leeds, they are hosting special “food boutique” events where families are invited to come and take food at no cost (although small donations are welcome from those who can afford it).

“Some parents were a bit proud at first but now they’re piling in. We never shut,” headteacher Chris Dyson told The Guardian. “We come in, in the holidays, to do this. There are families for whom it’s a continuous struggle. They get access to food banks but that’s only three times a year. It’s brilliant to be able to provide a bit extra.”

Another school, Richmond Hill Primary, began participating because it is located in a “food desert,” where it is incredibly difficult to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. The school now provides breakfast every day to 650 pupils and hosts a weekly “food boutique” for families, and has seen improvements in punctuality and attendance.

The pace of growth has been exhausting: “I’ve just got off the phone with people in the South Korean government, because we’re launching there. I get emails all the time from all over the world. Yesterday, in the space of about three minutes, we had emails from Indonesia, Spain, Canada, and Loughborough. It’s non-stop,” the founder of the Real Junk Food Project, Adam Smith, told The Guardian.

The hunger for these solutions is not expected to slow down, either, and Smith said he is totally overwhelmed. The need for the Real Junk Food Project and other solutions is needed worldwide, in developing and developed nations alike.

“I said right from the beginning that I wanted to feed the world and I haven’t even started yet,” said Smith. “We’ve fed nearly half a million people in 30 months but there’s so much more we can do.”

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