2013 Green Living Initiative
The New 'Good Cuisine' Movement
Taiwan wastes 70 Taipei 101s of food a day, at a cost of NT$240 billion per year. But throughout society a movement is rising to eat locally, efficiently, healthily and conscientiously.
The New 'Good Cuisine' MovementBy Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 519 )
A new revolution is simmering on dinner tables in Taiwan and around the world, targeting feasts and their leftovers.
Opulent banquets thrown in restaurants everywhere reek of resource and economic waste while masking distribution inequality. Yet a new "good cuisine" movement is emerging to take on the extravagance.
Cheng-shu Kao, the vice chairman of the board of Feng Chia University, frequently travels to China to visit with schools and businesses. On his most recent trip there in February, the biggest change he observed was how people eat and entertain.
On past trips, the organizations he visited would treat him to lavish banquets, tables overflowing with dishes, only for half of the food to be left unfinished and taken away. On this trip, Kao discovered that the standard fare was a simple five dishes and a soup.
"The authorities have issued orders against excessive waste," Kao explains, pointing to a statement by China's new leader Xi Jinping in late January exhorting Communist Party members to end "habits of waste," including ostentatious banquets. Since then, public agencies have been careful not to order too much when entertaining guests, to avoid wasting food.
China's State Administration of Grain has estimated that China wastes the equivalent of nearly NT$1 trillion worth of food a year, an amount that could support at least 200 million people living in poverty.
Food waste is not concentrated in any single country. It is a form of "luxury fever" that has been transmitted around the world.
A report issued by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2011 on "Global Food Losses and Food Waste" found that "roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year." It's an amount that could feed the more than 860 million people on the planet who still go hungry or are malnourished.
In Taiwan in the old days, grandparents and parents would get children to clean their plates by telling them, "You'll be struck by lightning if you waste food." But as the country has prospered, the mind-set of cherishing and not wasting has gradually disappeared.
So how wasteful are Taiwan's consumers?
It's actually hard to tell, because while the issue of food loss and food waste has drawn increasing attention internationally, CommonWealth Magazine researchers were hard-pressed to find any studies or statistics related to food loss in Taiwan produced by the government or academia.
Based on Environmental Protection Administration figures on recycled kitchen waste (waste given to garbage collectors for use as animal feed or other functions) and different categories of garbage, CommonWealth Magazine calculated that the average person in Taiwan generates 96 kilograms of kitchen waste a year, higher than the average in other Asian countries. The Council of Agriculture's latest figures indicate that the average Taiwanese has access to a supply of 567 kg. of food a year, which would mean that about 17 percent of it is lost or wasted.
That 17 percent represents an extremely conservative estimate, because the EPA figures do not include waste given by restaurants and building occupants to private recyclers; the actual figure is sure to be higher.
What are the economic consequences of this extravagance?
NT$10,000 Up in Smoke
According to the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, the average Taiwanese household spends roughly NT$176,000 on food a year. If 17 percent of that is wasted, then each household is throwing away NT$30,000 worth of food. In a country of 8 million households and 23 million people, that translates into a money pit of NT$240 billion per year, or about NT$10,000 per person.
Local residents toss these 100 NT$100 notes unwittingly into garbage cans over the course of a year, unaware of the level of waste being generated and its cost to them.
So why do Taiwanese waste food and how can the problem be tackled? Understanding their eating habits may offer some answers.
In mid-March, the CommonWealth Magazine Survey Center polled Taiwanese on the subject and found that 35 percent of respondents ate out more than three days a week. Asked about how they handled leftovers, more than 30 percent said they didn't bother with doggy bags, with those living alone and younger respondents particularly inclined to leave behind unfinished dishes.
Wasteful practices at home seem equally as common. A total of 81 percent of respondents said they bought more food than was needed in their own kitchens, and more than one-quarter admitted that they often or occasionally threw out uneaten or uncooked food. Among those who purchased too much for they own use, nearly 30 percent said it was because the items they bought were cheap.
Ultimately, frequently eating out, chasing bargains and leaving leftovers behind were identified as the three major reasons Taiwanese people waste food.
Wang Ching-feng, the chairwoman of Taiwan's Red Cross Society and a former justice minister, has made one of her priorities the last three months to encourage people to "have one less dish" when they eat.
"Look at what's happening. At wedding banquets, is there ever even one table where the food has been finished? Usually half of it gets thrown out," Wang said animatedly, armed with a string of numbers illustrating the global scope of the problem – one-third of all food produced is wasted, one-seventh of all people go hungry, and one-quarter of all people are obese.
When Wang read the United Nations report on food loss and waste at the beginning of this year, she was shocked to realize that food waste has become the main factor behind global imbalances and poor nutrition. She decided on the spot to initiate her "Have One Less Dish" movement to cut waste.
Wang acknowledges that when she was a working mother, she would go on food buying sprees on weekends, only to then go on "food disposal" sprees when what she bought went bad. Today, she tends to not purchase borderline items and insists on not overbuying. If there are leftovers when she eats out, she gets a doggy bag to act as a "responsible consumer."
Helping Others with Money Saved on Food
One of the primary targets of Wang's campaign is the business community, in which entertaining or discussing deals over big restaurant meals is routine. Her message may be starting to resonate.
At the year-end banquet of the Council for Industrial and Commercial Development in February, an elegant menu standing on each table listed the feast's fare, from a plate of cold appetizers on down. But the fifth dish had a rather unusual name: "Have One Less Dish, Give One Helping of Love."
Wang sold council chairman T.K. Lei on the idea of serving one less dish and donating the money saved to disadvantaged families, in part because Lei knew how wasteful these gatherings could be. He explained candidly that business banquets generally consist of at least 10 dishes, but most of the time, by the fifth course, "people have disappeared from their tables" and generally don't return.
In adopting Wang's concept, Lei has decided that there will be one less dish served at the council's monthly gatherings in the future.
Another new approach that stresses cherishing food and buying locally grown produce in season has gained popularity around the globe and proved effective in eliminating food-wasting habits.
This issue of CommonWealth Magazine focusing on the "New Good Cuisine Movement" deconstructs the cracks appearing in Taiwan's tens of millions of dinner tables from four perspectives: food waste, food education, a new chef's movement and a new vendor's movement.
Our reporters visited Taiwan's biggest agricultural breadbasket, Yunlin County; its biggest wholesale market, the Siluo Fruit and Vegetables Market; and countless supermarkets and restaurants to investigate the situation at various points along the country's food supply chain. The team used the journey of a single cabbage to summarize Taiwan's food loss and waste in a "Cabbage Index."
Vegetable prices in Taiwan have fallen steadily since the Lunar New Year holiday, to a point where as of late March a cabbage was selling for less than an egg. But what goes unseen is that only half the cabbage picked in the field even makes it to the dinner table because of problems along the supply chain, mostly losses during the transportation process and produce weeded out because it does not meet shape or appearance standards.
Chefs Lead the Way on Social Sustainability
Aside from breaking down the factors behind the monumental waste of food, our team also focused on new initiatives and opportunities arising from the challenge.
Many schools and businesses, for example, have begun new food education initiatives. The Tainan City Bureau of Education has made food education a sixth core pillar of education, in addition to the five official core components of Taiwan's education system (moral, intellectual, physical, social and aesthetic education). To prepare for the new curriculum, Tainan wrote the first teaching materials on food education for elementary school students anywhere in the country.
At the Formosa Plastics Group petrochemical complex in Mailiao in Yunlin County, meanwhile, the plastics conglomerate has hired five food managers who all have Level C chef certificates. Their job is to reduce the amount of leftovers in the workers' cafeteria.
Another trend is the growing number of new chefs and new food outlets that are striving to reframe the beautiful relationship between people and food.
At the beginning of March, CommonWealth Magazine reporters accompanied Italian Michelin star chef Igor Macchia to Taidong to visit the vegetable stand of renowned philanthropist Chen Shu-chu, where he used the local ingredients of Taiwan's east coast to make Italian food for the indigenous children of Wu Lu Elementary School.
The team also visited Japan and South Korea to see how others are dealing with food issues. In Japan, we observed the approach taken toward food education by schools and local governments there and its detailed classification system tracing food from the source.
Beginning this year, South Korea is charging to collect kitchen waste, and everybody, from housewives to restaurant owners, is applying creative methods to keep waste to a minimum. The positive impact of the policy is evident.
Food is an important source of happiness, and appropriate helpings of "good cuisine" can ensure the planet's well-being.
International chef Gaston Acurio, who was raised in a political family in Peru and now runs a thriving restaurant empire, joined with other famous chefs in September 2011 in writing an Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow professing the values of this "good cuisine" movement.
"We dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a just and sustainable society," the letter read.
Acurio delivered a similar message in a documentary he co-produced called "Peru Sabe: Cuisine as an Agent of Social Change," which premiered at the United Nations in June 2012.
The clarion call has been sounded. The dinner table revolution promoting social change is taking shape, in Taiwan and around the world.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier