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I get around: Mayya Husseini

I get around is one of our regular series. Every month, Association members tell stories of where they are, what they are doing, who they have met, and why they believe or hope they are doing valuable work. This month it is Mayya Husseini’s turn to tell us about her views and experiences as a beginner public health nutritionist in Barcelona.

Mayya Husseini writes: Coming to the end of my master’s degree at the

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2011, the question that kept on ringing louder than ever in my head was ‘where do I want to go from here?’ .

Yes, I know this is somewhat of a crazy time to plunge into the unknown and to pick a (semi) new place. Given the global financial and you-name-them crises, it would be much wiser to let the place pick you. But I’ve never been one to ignore my instincts and I knew exactly where they were taking me – Barcelona. Here’s what I’ve gotten up to since my last ‘I get around’ entry in December.

2013 is in full swing and Spring time is already upon us! Honestly, this New Year started off at full force for me as work has not stopped flooding in! At the office, it’s quite easy to forget all that’s going wrong in the world today cause of so much traffic coming in from the places where things are going right. But I come back to the reality here each time I walk through these city streets where despite the keeping up of appearances, it sadly seems to be bursting at the seams. For me, the telltale sign that things are getting desperate fast is that dumpster diving for food in broad daylight has become the new normal. Now, I personally have no problem with this happening because I honestly believe that if people are doing that and with such frequency it must mean that they are actually finding food. I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that there seems to be little social stigma attached to it as people just go about their daily lives while practically every other garbage container is being rummaged through. But this then begs the question: how much food are they finding? Or more importantly, how much food is being thrown out?

Mayya IGA 1The every day reality in Spain, snapped & cited in the NY times last September 2012.

Food waste is one hot topic right now and in December, a friend pointed me in the direction of a very good documentary on the situation here in Spain. As part of a TV documentary series called ‘Salvados’ (The Saved) hosted by the much-admired reporter/journalist Jordi Évole, this episode was titled ‘Con la comida no se juega’ (Food is not to be played with). On this occasion, Évole takes a closer look at the main sources of food waste in Spain.

Évole starts off by exposing the pressures the agricultural sector face from supermarkets to meet their demands. A mandarin farmer in Tarragona, Southern Catalonia tells us with a heavy heart how he has to discard more than 40% of his produce for not meeting the esthetic requirements of supermarkets. So in order to ensure he meets his quota (otherwise facing a fine), he will grow more produce than needed to factor in all those oversized, misshapen & discoloured mandarins that won’t make it to supermarket shelves. We are taken through the beautification process step-by-step to see what supermarket-ready produce actually entails. First, the picked mandarins are placed in a chamber at ideal temperature and relative humidity in combination with ethylene gas to bring out that ripe orange colour & tangy fragrance we associate with mandarins at their prime. Step 2 comprises of a conveyer belt lined with brushes to bring out the shine in the peel. Then they are passed through a system that separates them by size & weight to filter out the ‘ugly ducklings’. Lastly, they are subject to visual inspection before being packaged in crates destined for the supermarkets. The fact that fruit is made up very much like an actor is before heading in front of the camera is absurd! How have we let things get to this point?

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Reported Jordi Évole (left) with Tarragona mandarin farmer illustrating what is meant by ‘ugly’ fruit.

In true reporter fashion, Évole decides to take a bagful of ‘ugly fruit’ to confront one of the country’s leading supermarket chains, asking them why exactly it is that they won’t stock this kind of produce. ‘It’s simply not up to consumer standards, our customers don’t want them’ was the basic gist of the supermarket representative’s response. This is only a half-truth I believe, as humans definitely are visual beings and as such have a natural inclination towards symmetrical, sun-kissed fruit – an evolutionary pressure some might call it. But we also have minds that are capable of understanding that there is no harm in consuming ‘ugly fruit’ and that if we don’t it will most likely end up being thrown out. I wouldn’t goes as far as saying ‘ugly fruit’ tastes better than its perfect counterpart because I think that depends on more than just appearance. However, it is reasonable to think that ‘perfect produce’ is more likely to have been subjected to a more industrial cultivation process. It would be a matter of conditioning ourselves to be more accepting of produce in all its shapes & forms. In fact, it seems like supermarkets in the UK are already catching up with this as I have recently read that Waitrose is beginning to stock ‘ugly’ fruit & veg.

Next stop for Évole is Galicia in Northern Spain, where he speaks to fishermen that explain how they are obliged to dump tonnes of dead fish they catch in order to respect EU fishing regulatory norms. This particular scene is quite tragic, resembling a blanket of thousands of dead fish unable to be resuscitated by their own natural habitat. This typically represents about 30% of their catch, 90% of which is fit for consumption. FAO reports that on a global scale 15-20 million tonnes of fish caught per year are discarded, while 2 million tonnes are cast off per year in the EU alone. Now this is an ironic situation because in Spain it seems that we import up to 70% of the fish we consume. Also, fishermen face being fined some €3,000+ should they dock with more fish then they are entitled to catch. This makes the redistribution of excess fish risky business, as any excess product is illegal from a political perspective. In 2011, British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall found a interesting loophole in the legal system: since fishermen aren’t allowed to dock with excess fish or directly give their surplus to others, that means that there should be nothing wrong with getting rid of the extra fish closer to the shore where

people can wade on in and fish it out for themselves! (See Channel 4’s Hugh’s Fish Fight). Évole asks the obvious – why hasn’t more efficient fishing practices been put to the test? The fishermen said that that wasn’t only up to them. Anybody have anything to add on this subject? Feel free to write me about it, would love to hear more!

It almost becomes too much to keep watching and see nothing being done about the matter, so Évole decides to ask whether drawing up some sort of legislation against food wastage is on the political agenda in an interview with Joan Baldoví, Delegate to the Congress representing the Compromís-Equo socio-political party of Valencia. In September 2011, Baldoví tried to pass a motion in favour of bringing the issue of food wastage onto the political agenda but was knocked down by a majority vote against by Rajoy’s Party ‘Partido Popular’.

Finally, Évole ends at the Banco Solidario de Alimentos (Food Solidarity Bank) in Valencia. That tell us the number of Spaniards receiving food aid is at an all time high for recent times at about 15% and that this figure is only forecast to increase. Food aid used to be something that was predominately subsidised by the Public Administration, but with budget cuts they have withdrawn a lot of the funding making it seems as though Spain was over-spending on this aspect. However, in reality Spain’s allocated budget for food aid was below the average for EU members. Currently, food banks are receiving most of their aid from the EU plan like I had witnessed while volunteering at a food bank in Barcelona. The remaining aid is increasingly coming from supermarkets. But the reality of the situation is that the supply is not able to meet the demand, as there are still many families on a waiting list to receive food aid. It’s a tough reality and time will tell where we are headed with this subject. Nevertheless, a good place to start with helping to reduce food waste would be to always finish the food on your plate!

Box 1. Mr Manuel Bruscas

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Jordi Évole with Manuel Bruscas (right) talking food waste figures over fresh orange juice.

In the first part of the documentary, Évole interviews Manuel Bruscas, a social consultant that loves food but hates waste. Manuel dishes out some hard truths about the situation of food waste here in Spain. While he admits that while the hunger situation here is not nearly as extreme as that of say, the Sahel; an estimated 3-4 million Spaniards struggle to obtain adequate nourishment. This is clearly illustrated by the number receiving food aid here having tripled within the last year. He then tells us that on average per household €300 worth of food ends up in the bin each year. These figures caught my attention and no doubt I decided investigate a little more to see what else this man had to say. Low and behold, I find he is an avid writer on the topic, having written different articles on a number of different social topics for newspapers, organisations, etc.

A preacher of pro-activeness I would call him. He talks about who he believes are mainly responsible for food waste: 1) the public powers that be for their lack of or poor campaigning for a reduction in food waste, 2) supermarkets, restaurants & other food outlets for both directly throwing out food and encouraging consumers to buy more than what they need thus wasting food indirectly and 3) households of everyday people for their poor sensitisation to the matter. I had the sheer luck of crossing paths with this man on the ‘twittersphere’ and landed myself the opportunity to pick this man’s brain on the love/hate subject of foodwaste. Stay tuned for more on this!


The views expressed here are those of the authors and should not be taken to be those of the Association.

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