Growing up as a Chinoy, my parents always taught me about the value of rice and food in general. They always told me many different things to make sure I finished eating my rice, with the most common ones being wise sayings like: “A bowl of rice is the fruit of a farmer’s labor, so we must appreciate every bite,” or “Rice is the equivalent of wealth, so we shouldn’t let it go to waste.” There are more comical sayings that serve as threats to little children. I remember my mother in particular telling me that the more rice I leave uneaten on my plate, the higher the chances that I’ll end up with an ugly husband, so as a child, I made sure to eat every single grain of rice, to the point where my plate looked like it was never used. I’m sure every culture has sayings related to the value of food, but when we live in a society that’s full of eat-all-you-can promos and other food trends, we tend to forget about the value of food simply because we have the means to afford it.
I’m also guilty of this sometimes. I don’t usually waste food on purpose because I would often feel guilty afterwards. When there’s a particular dish that I don’t like on my plate, I would give it to my parents. And when I order more than I can finish when eating out, I would take the leftovers home and save it for later, but that was before buffets and Korean Barbeques became a thing. Buffets are on the pricier side of eating out, but we think that it’s worth it because we could always eat any amount of food we want. And it is worth it, for the most part, but since we’re so caught up with getting our money’s worth, we also tend to let a lot of food go to waste. I’ve been to a lot of buffets to celebrate my friends’ birthdays, and I always tell myself that I would only take what I can finish. But then, I see more dishes that I really want to try, and I come back to my table with two full plates. I look around to see my friends doing the same, but our appetites crash halfway through the meal, and by the end of it, the waiters would take the plate-fulls of leftovers and dispose of them.
I didn’t feel bad then because everyone else had leftovers too. Besides, we only wasted a small amount of food compared to the amount that we consumed, and since most buffets have no take-out policies, there’s not much we can do about the leftovers. But now I realize how bad that mindset is. We no longer feel guilty because we got our money’s worth, but the amount of food that we wasted, no matter how small, tends to add up. The leftovers from our table alone could probably become a seven-course meal for other people, what more of the amount of leftovers of all the diners of the buffet combined? The same goes for Korean Barbeques. They might not be as pricey as buffets, but we’re all still trying to make the most out of it. Sometimes, it even turns into a competition among friends on who can eat the most plates of meat or bowls of rice, so we end up ordering more than we can finish, and we’re too busy being proud about finishing an x amount of food to feel bad about the leftovers.
Food waste isn’t only limited to eat all you can restaurants. Even regular restaurants generate a lot of food waste because some people don’t finish all the food they order. There could be various reasons for this, but most of it likely stems from social pressure. My mother once told me about how the people in our school’s parents association group teased someone for finishing all her rice, saying that she must be starving in order to eat that much. My friend also told me about a conversation she overheard from the table next to her, where a woman ordered a cheesecake for dessert and ate only a quarter of it because she was on a diet. I also know someone who would always avoid taking out leftover food because no one else was doing it, and she didn’t want to appear matakaw or greedy.
It seems like food trends and social pressure have normalized food waste, which isn’t a good thing at all given there some people can’t even afford to eat three meals a day. In fact, there are people who don’t have the means to buy decent food at all, so they have to live off scraps collected from fast food restaurants. The World Wildlife Fund-Philippines estimates that about 2,175 tons of food goes to waste every day in Metro Manila alone, so this just goes to show how even the smallest amount of leftovers will add up over time.
I think we have to be reminded of the lessons we learned from childhood once in a while. As ridiculous as some of them may seem, they are meant to teach us the value of food, regardless of our age and socioeconomic status. Recently however, in my limited experiences of dining out since the pandemic started, I noticed that people are more willing to request for take out instead of leaving their leftovers behind. This was just based on my observations from a specific situation with a specific group of people who happened to be dining at the same time as me, so I’m not saying food waste is no longer a problem during the pandemic. I’m just saying that the struggles brought about by the pandemic might have reminded some people about the value of food again, and hopefully this mindset will continue even without a global health crisis.