Three times daily, Alexandre Gugushvili, Valentina Michelashvili, and Raisa Kosianenko line up to receive their daily meals at the Caritas soup kitchen in Didube, an industrial suburb of Tbilisi. For them, just like for many other vulnerable people across Georgia, these meals are not just an opportunity to keep the hunger at bay, but a rare chance to socialize and integrate into a community. “We serve three meals a day to 440 people, but there is a long waiting list for those we cannot accommodate,” says Inga Chkheidze, manager at Caritas, which has operated for 25 years. While institutions like Caritas struggle to simply offer enough to needy people, huge amounts of food are probably being wasted just next door.
Regardless of my ambitions to consume all that I purchase, time and time again, I end up throwing out probably more than half of the week’s groceries. Better planning and smaller quantities would take me a long way in reducing waste; a better deal for the environment and for my pocket. But if I were to buy less food, could anybody really guarantee that desperate people like those in Caritas would receive any more?
Probably not. Every day across Georgia, enormous amounts of perfectly edible food is thrown away. Instead of ending up in the stomachs of the needy, it ends up in landfills. Thus household waste in various forms contributes to a strange duality of excess and scarcity, while putting a strain on the country’s economy and environment.
Enough to Go Around
Food waste is a worldwide problem. According to a 2013 report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, a third of all food produced for consumption globally ends up on landfills. Studies conducted by the environmental NGO CENN in 2016 and 2018 found that, 40% of the waste found on dumpsites across Georgia is organic waste; much of which is food. In every single one of the country’s municipalities, household waste makes up the majority of all waste. According to the morphological studies of dumpsites across the country, organic waste tends to make up the majority of all waste.
The reasons behind food waste can range from anything from products being too close to the expiration date, to incorrect labeling, (slightly) damaged packaging, deterioration of the quality of fresh products, over-supply, large portion sizes, or poor hygiene and storage practices. Customer preferences and local customs such as extravagant weddings also play a role.
Supermarket products in Georgia are removed from the shelves two weeks before their expiry date to avoid potential problems of liability or accusations of poor quality. For example, last year the biggest losses for Georgian branches of some supermarket chains were usually of fruits and vegetables, as well as meat According to one unpublished report seen by the author, supermarket chains in Georgia throw out between 300 and 500 kg of products every three days per branch.
Products considered “high risk” such as meat usually include Use By dates on their packaging. Low-risk products, such as grains, are usually labeled with a Best Before date, which means that the product can still be consumed for some time after the date indicated. Partly due to a lack of understanding of this distinction and partly out of a desire to play things safe, many supermarket products are sometimes thrown out before the “best before” date.
Furthermore, donating food can also prove to be bad for business. Unfavorable tax regulations make supermarkets reluctant to give away unsold food; even donations to charitable organizations are VAT taxable, meaning that the supermarket has to pay 18% of the product’s market price. As there are no regulations allowing for donor protection, supermarkets also risk bearing the entire liability for donations.
For Georgia’s soup kitchens and charities, this amount of discarded food could make a world of difference. Catharsis is another Tbilisi-based charitable organization, founded in 1990, which provides meals to the poor among other services. Its premises include a dining area, café, theater, and library among other amenities. Catharsis vice president Guliko Romanishvili remembered the organization’s cooperation with the supermarket Euro Product last year.
“We had a really diversified menu as a result. For many of our beneficiaries, some of the products were really exotic like cheese spread and beer. They loved the beer we received from the supermarket, none of them had ever tried anything of the sort before,” remembers Romanishvili. Catharsis has 10 staff fundraising on a daily basis and cold-calling donors to sustain its operations. As Guliko puts it, a consistent stream of support from supermarkets or food banks would make a world of difference to the charity and those it helps.
From Feast to Landfill
If Georgia’s supermarkets are wasteful, the country’s restaurants don’t seem to be much better. Approximately 4- 10% of all food purchased by restaurants is wasted before even reaching diners. “Many restaurants sort through the left-overs in the kitchen and distribute them among staff; at least we try to do this to avoid waste,” explained 57-year old Khatuna Botsvadze, owner of the Peitoni restaurant in Tbilisi.
And what leftovers. Georgia is famous for its culinary traditions, and collective dining is deeply ingrained in the country’s cultural identity. During the long feasts known as Supras, the tables heave and the dishes keep on coming. But if in household settings the Supra’s leftovers were kept and consumed by the family for days to come, today’s celebrations in restaurants leave behind large quantities of food which goes to waste.
However, nothing that has already been served at a table can be re-distributed. From 2020 onwards, a new law could even ban such leftovers from being fed to animals. “I remember trying to donate food left in the kitchen to a charity and they would not accept it. There was so much,” continues Khatuna. This is why charities which do have agreements with businesses generally see supermarkets, not restaurants, as a more reliable source of food donations.
Why does it matter?
Access to food is a major dividing line in any society. While many people still live with daily uncertainty about food, shelter, or heat, a global epidemic of food waste drags on. A 2016 report by Oxfam and RAPDI, a Tbilisi-based NGO specializing in agricultural policy, found that 11% of Georgians routinely borrow money to buy food, about 8% live with food insecurity, and 21% live below the poverty line. Charities that provide community kitchens such as Caritas and Catharsis are left having to purchase food to serve to vulnerable people.
But the hidden costs of food waste are greater than they might seem, and their implications go beyond social inequality. Financially, food waste costs individuals, businesses, municipalities, and the country at large a great deal of money. For example, hotel kitchens traditionally budget for 3-5% of their food purchasing costs to be written off as unavoidable food waste. Food waste can cost retailers up to 4% of their sales revenue, while 10 to 28% of food produced for human consumption is lost at the retail level.
Food waste also has grave ecological consequences. Most municipal waste in Georgia ends up in over 400 illegal dumpsites; landfills which harm animals, contaminate the soil and the air we breathe. Food waste that decomposes in landfills releases carbon dioxide and methane, the latter being a greenhouse gas that is at least 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
What can be done?
Recovering or re-distributing food that would otherwise end up on a landfill is a natural solution. But ensuring that system of redistribution is effective and equitable is a little more complex. Matthieu Rouviere (FAO), an expert at the FAO, believes that food banks can play an important role in achieving this.
According to Transparency International Georgia, the number of people on the waiting list for food programmes increases by the day. The charities interviewed in this article believe they could double the supply of meals to vulnerable people if they received food donations instead of having to buy food themselves.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation is actively working in this direction by bringing together governmental agencies, charities, and supermarkets to address financial implications of food waste, effective redistribution models, and the legal barriers to enacting them. Some supermarkets have already formed contractual relationships with charities, allowing them to sell edible products at a low cost that would otherwise be thrown away.
Many countries around the world have tried innovative approaches to tackling food waste. Their solutions go far beyond food banks: for example, in the UK there are community kitchens that are almost entirely sourced from food that was destined for landfills. In France, it is now illegal for supermarkets to throw out food that is not yet expired. In South Korea, consumers are taxed on the amount of organic waste they produce. In Germany, community fridges and food stores have been accessible for all who need them, sometimes via mobile applications.
In short, there are many creative solutions to ensuring food does not go to waste and instead to those that would otherwise go hungry. It’s time for Georgia to step up to the plate.