There's a quarter chicken left over from dinner and it is dutifully placed in the fridge. But what to do with it? There are good old-fashioned croquettes, of course, but these days who has the time to spend all morning making them? Certainly not nearly as many people as in the past. All too often, the leftovers will end up in the trash.
But the European Union has mandated that all member states - their homes, supermarkets, factories and restaurants - must halve the amount of food that goes into the waste bin by the year 2025. For Spain, the order comes at a time of accelerating lifestyles and what sociologists are defining as a growing lack in cooking skills, and even a certain lack of interest in the value of food.
The Agriculture, Food and Environment Ministry is working on a road map to solve this problem in the coming three years. The approach will be manifold, and it includes analyzing household consumption habits, fostering legal changes pertaining to food expiration dates, and raising awareness among citizens, restaurants and food distribution chains. According to the European Commission (EC), 42 percent of food waste occurs inside the home, while 39 percent may be blamed on production companies and another 14 percent on restaurants.
"We need to create an awareness and a commitment at all levels," says Fernando Burgaz, director general of food industries at the Agriculture, Food and Environment Ministry.
Food waste is also a cultural issue. Scandinavians, for instance, waste a lot less. "It is true that Spain went from a period of scarcity to one of plenty, and you still see this need to show off [that you can afford to leave food on the table], but this is just one element to take into account," says Cristóbal Gómez, a sociology professor at the distance university UNED.
Spain ranks sixth on the list of EU members that throw out the largest amounts of healthy, edible food: 7.7 million metric tons of it a year, according to EC figures from 2010. The five worst performers are Germany (10.3 tons), the Netherlands (9.4 tons), France (9.0), Poland (8.9) and Italy (8.8).
There are inspirational examples like Britain, which managed to reduce its waste by 21 percent in five years through awareness campaigns. For its part, France, where food waste can represent an annual expense of 400 euros for a family of four, has come up with a "national pact" that has spawned initiatives such as three supermarket items for the price of two, where the third one may be obtained later, when the other two have been consumed. Another campaign based on the "beauty lies within" slogan seeks to convince consumers not to discard vegetables just because they are not physically perfect.
But Spanish chains such as Mercadona argue that there is just no way to get consumers to take home a gnarled-looking carrot or potato. So instead they have decided to use these less beautiful products in other production chains, to make purées, jams and other processed foods. "The fact is [ugly veggies] don't sell well, and it's a pity," says Adela Torres, Mercadona's environmental department chief, at a food convention organized by the ministry.
In Spain, per capita food waste is 28 kilograms a year, according to a study conducted by the Spanish Confederation of Consumer and User Cooperatives (Hispacoop) with backing from the National Consumer Institute. The products that get thrown out the most are, in this order, bread and cereals (20 percent); fruit and vegetables (17 percent); milk and dairy products, pasta, rice and pulses (13 percent); drinks (seven percent); and meat and processed foods (six percent).
This association has just published a recipe book to help people cut down on this wastefulness. "We have really lost our way [...] We throw out food and it doesn't even feel bad," says the chef Sergio Fernández, who wrote the recipes. "It is hard to be on top of the amounts you need if you don't cook regularly, but we do need to stop thinking of them as leftovers. It is food, and with a bit of imagination you can use them to make something really yummy."
Alicia Langreo, director of the research group Saborá, which specializes in the food system, believes that people just don't value food enough. "Food takes up a small amount of one's income, and even less so when your income is higher," she says. "In very poor countries even potato peels are put to good use, but over here, with chicken selling for two euros a kilo, it is very hard to get people to consider making croquettes or a lasagna with the leftovers."
Langreo, an agricultural engineer by trade, talks instead about changing people's attitudes to consumption. "Throwing out a pair of socks that just need a stitch or two or changing your home appliances when they still work also represents waste."
"It's not that you need to stop consuming; it's just that you have to add the word 'responsible' to it," adds Milagros Yagüe, deputy director for consumer regulations and associations at the National Consumer Institute. "In recent years we have all indulged in excess, consuming above our needs."
But not all is lost. Our consumer society also exhibits a strong social awareness about the need to eat healthily, for example. Cecilia Díaz Méndez, a sociologist at Oviedo University, talks about contradictory forces at play: some of them favor a rational use of food, while others hinder it. An author of many studies on food, Díaz associates food waste with a lack of knowledge regarding the right amounts of food to buy and what to do with the leftovers, as well as the fact that we have less time to spend in the kitchen and shopping for groceries.
According to the Eating Habits Survey conducted by the Agriculture Ministry, it is mostly women who buy the groceries and do the cooking (even among the younger age groups). "Their participation in the job market makes them work the equivalent of double shifts, and the lack of time is not going to help with optimal food management," the report reads. Despite this, the study concludes that food culture in Spain is still quite solid. "[Home cooks] feel very responsible about offering healthy food. They are able to overcome their schedule restrictions, and this goes a long way toward good food management."
So all that is left for us to do now is to appreciate the bounty offered to us by our leftovers.