Stop blaming Insta-loving millennials for rampant food waste

Young people may be responsible for the most food waste in the UK, but there are deeper historical factors at play.

“Instagram generation is fuelling UK food waste mountain!” a headline screamed last month. Here we go again, with yet another world problem blamed on young people. This time, however, the results come from a study conducted by Sainsbury’s. The numbers are certainly distressing: Only 17 percent of under-35s said they “never waste food,” compared to two-fifths of people over 55.

The study says this is due to millennials’ "live to eat" attitude. Young people’s relationships with food tend to focus more on pleasure than on practicality or frugality. They splurge on exotic ingredients to make fancy dishes that look great on Instagram, but are difficult to reuse in other recipes. With so many dishes being prepared for the express purpose of posting online, more food ends up in the trash. Millennials don’t plan ahead; they don’t know how to use their own kitchens; they buy takeout a lot. The list goes on.

But if you’re part of that 17 percent of dedicated non-wasters, this announcement is incredibly irritating. After all, why are so many millennials this way? What has led to them becoming the lead food wasters?

Nell Frizzell attacks this question with eloquent ferocity in a Guardian article titled “Food waste is a scandal, but to blame it on millennials is nonsense.” She argues that the study’s findings do not get to the root of the problem, that to blame rampant waste on dinner photography is ridiculous.

“The real cause of food waste is a postwar, intensive farming and supermarket culture that has divorced us entirely from how food is made, grown, produced and should be eaten. I know lots of good people who… are unaware of droughts, haven’t heard about Britain’s dairy crisis, don’t care when the actual runner bean season is and simply want to pay less for the things they eat. Not because they are innately wasteful, but because the strip-lit aisles of supermarket shopping have insulated them, like a choking coat of cling film, from the reality of food production. They are scared of food, because they’ve been taught to be so.”

This is, in large part, the fault of our parents and grandparents, who thought they were making life easier and better by buying microwaves, Tupperware, sliced bread, plastic-wrapped frozen dinners, pre-chopped vegetables, and canned soup. Gone were the backyard kitchen gardens, the daily trips to the baker and butcher, the cycle of from-scratch food prep that once dominated every household. These modern ‘advances,’ however, had the undesirable effect of disassociating children from the food system that nourished them. It eroded respect for farming, knowledge of the true value of food, and basic cooking skills.

That’s how we’ve ended up where we are. How could young people be any different, having been raised by parents who, arguably, cooked far less than their grown children do now? And really, is it such a bad thing for food to be destined for Instagram if it’s leading to more young people cooking? Frizzell adds that social media could actually be a good thing:

“Sharing recipe ideas, talking about ingredients, taking an interest in where your food was grown, your chicken killed, your avocado flown in from, has all been made not just possible but socially acceptable thanks to my generation’s online existence.”

Of course, there’s still a lot of ground to be gained back, but the movement is there, far more so than it was a generation ago, and that is entirely thanks to millennial foodies. Give us credit for that, at least.

Tags: Cooking | Food Miles | Food Safety | Food Security | Waste | Waste Not Want Not

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