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Eat What You Take, Take Only What You Can Eat

(Khaleej Times, 12 June, 2023)

An occasion in the family recently required us to throw a dinner treat. Not inclined to lavish jamborees, I looked for smaller options with only one rider. No buffet.

Every time I have attended parties people graciously invited us to, I have come back feeling distressed about the huge quantities of food that lay simmering, waiting to be scraped at the bottom. More often than not, at the time of leaving, I see most of what was laid out lined up to be dumped when the crowd dispersed.

For hours after I return home, I fret at the prospect of all the uneaten food going into landfills. All these, when, as per the WFP estimates, roughly ‘828 million people are unsure of where their next meal is coming from’ and according to FAO, nearly 29% of the global population faces serious levels of food insecurity. These are statistics we are either not conscious of or we deliberately gloss over for the discomfort it causes when we plan our next big gathering.

Food wastage is a casualty that happens at three levels – farm, retail and consumer. While the first two may not directly be in our individual ambit of action and will require higher level intervention and participation to resolve, the last one is within our means to control.

We may not know the exact count of hungry people in the world, but I suspect none of us will be unaware of the unpalatable truth that we are incognito partners in this humongous crime of throwing away food when millions sleep on an empty stomach every night. These are platitudes we serve our children when they leave their plates unfinished, but we conveniently tend to forget them when we organize fiestas in the name of festivity. We have made satiety seem ugly with our casual attitude to consumption and wastage.

Hence, I was categorical that no food served at our party will go to waste. There will be limited food, considering how people have turned into fitness freaks for the most part and preferred to eat little. A big spread might look good on the table, but it reflects poorly on our character and attitude towards the afflictions of the less-privileged fractions of society. Wastage cannot be justified by any means, no matter what stature we hold in the society and how much we need to look affluent and generous in its eyes.

There is no denying the fact that buffets have been a hugely favoured feasting norm for a long time now, giving guests a sense of privilege and choice to satisfy their palates, and the tradition will not peter out anytime soon. Truth be told, there is nothing more enjoyable about a stay in a star-rated hotel than the extravagant breakfast buffet that we overindulge in. Even those who are habituated to frugal daily breakfasts gorge on the spread indiscriminately. Nothing wrong with it, but if we paused for a moment and considered what our proclivity to such excesses does to the planet, to the chunks of suffering mankind and to our own moral standards, we may probably desist from doing it another time with such relish. Take this extra bit for a deterrence – about 50% of food wastage comes from buffets that go uneaten.

Often what contributes to such whopping levels of frittering is an improper estimation of food needs both in terms of preparation and portioning. I recently came across an exemplary announcement by a local restaurant that offered dishes in three different portions, like pizzas. It seemed like a conscientious effort to let the consumer make an informed order based on his appetite and not end up staring at over-sized portions that he cannot polish off.

Similarly, when we sit to dine or we plan to throw a bash, let us step back a little and look at the bigger picture and get rational and realistic about our needs. Being well-heeled does not mean we are privileged to toss away what probably could feed others. Restaurants managers often don’t have the liberty to give away leftovers to charity owing to food safety regulations and health concerns, and they will in all probability be cringing every day to see kilograms of food going in the dumps. It is a professional hazard they must face. But we, as consumers, have a choice.

We can celebrate our special days with gaiety but let us not make it look vulgar in the context of a world spiraling into a major food crisis. In the above-mentioned minimalist party I arranged, all that was left was a quarter portion of biriyani which we duly brought home. The guests were sated, and I was vindicated. A Buffet is rewarding only when it preceded by Warren, not when it is followed by wastage.

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