The children have all gone. There are signs they were once here: ransacked boxes of toppled triangle sandwiches, beetroot bleeding into white bread, tomato between cheese slices and deli meat on wholemeal. Stools around a table haphazardly arrayed as though the children left in haste. And, on three, four, five long trestle tables, multiple untouched cardboard lunch boxes, wrapped in plastic.
This is what we've come for, Alex and I, the lunch boxes. He finds a trolley. I start to load up. Could be 60 of them here, each with a plastic bottle of juice and an apple, plus combinations of wraps and more triangle sandwiches. A few have tubs of salad. Some have plastic signs: "vegetarian" or "gluten-free" or "dairy-free".
We push the trolley back to the lifts, through a shiny corporate lobby. A screen welcomes all the children visiting today for Bring Your Kids to Work Day. The children can't have been very hungry.
In the lift, Alex's voice echoes. "It all has to look bountiful. You don't want to look stingy. You don't want anyone left wanting." He has worked for the food-rescue organisation OzHarvest for years. There's not much he hasn't seen. The lift doors open to the loading dock. "Heaven forbid if your kid wanted the chicken roll but there weren't any left and he had to have the falafel one," Alex says, opening the doors of the bright-yellow OzHarvest van.
I remember stories my late father told about the frugality of his childhood lunches: almost always sandwiches with Peck's meat paste or Vegemite. He said they were all nearly inedible. My father would get so cross with me: in restaurants when I over-ordered; when I cooked too much during visits home. When I look now at the fading black and white photographs of my father and his twin brother as children, I can see how lean they are.
Of course times have changed. That was postwar Australia and here we are now, living in the 21st century, three generations on, and children know the difference between prosciutto and pancetta, and um and ah over whether they want penne or orecchiette for dinner. Of course times have changed. But have they changed too much? And what are we doing to our children's future?
We are gluttons. Almost all of us. We are addicted to food and we eat too much and waste too much. We turn our children into mini-me gluttons. We move with blithe indifference through supermarkets and provedores, through cafes, food courts and restaurants, through corporate shindigs and weddings and family barbecues, piling our trolleys and plates high, stuffing our faces, and leaving behind mountains of food. We do not see that every food purchase, every unnecessary mouthful, every wasted morsel, comes loaded with consequence. Our gluttony leaves a trail of damage.
Yes, we know people go hungry. When we hear the statistics – at some point in the next year, about four million fellow Australians will not have enough to eat, never mind the 800 million-plus undernourished others around the world – many of us feel a pang of something (sadness, guilt, relief it's someone else's problem?). We also know that eating too much, especially too much bad food – processed, sugary or fatty – is a path to poor health. Diabetes is the fastest-growing chronic condition in Australia and the Australian Bureau of Statistics projects that 40 per cent of us will be obese within the next decade.
But how many of us take our thinking further to broader concerns, to join the dots, to understand the interconnectedness of absolutely everything related to the food we eat and food's connection to nature? Our immense and unsustainable appetites, our careless addiction to meat and dairy products, are contributing both to the climate emergency and to the unprecedented decline in wildlife biodiversity.
A sweeping global report released in May (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) found that one million plant and animal species are facing extinction, many within decades. "While more food, energy and materials than ever before are now being supplied to people in most places, this is increasingly at the expense of nature's ability to provide such contributions in the future," the report notes.
And even if you don't care about climate change or biodiversity, there is another thing to consider: "Where is the food going to come from?" asked the British activist and writer George Monbiot in a December 2017 article. "By the middle of this century there will be two or three billion more people on Earth. Any one of the issues I am about to list could help precipitate mass starvation. And this is before you consider how they might interact."
Monbiot lists some of the issues: soil loss and degradation, declining crop yields, groundwater loss even in the face of higher demand for water, a likely pollination crisis, collapsing fish populations, the increase in demand for animal protein and the "profligacy" of livestock farming, the loss of habitat, the rainforests felled to make room for more livestock.
He also points out that "as people's incomes increase, their diet tends to shift from plant protein to animal protein". How can we who have eaten so well for so long tell the rising middle classes in countries such as China and India that they must exercise restraint?
Monbiot's fear for the future disturbs his sleep. "I am plagued by visions of starving people seeking to escape from grey wastes, being beaten back by armed police. I see the last rich ecosystems snuffed out, the last of the global megafauna – lions, elephants, whale and tuna – vanishing. And when I wake, I cannot assure myself that it was just a nightmare."
He's a hysterical leftie, you say. Not at all. The World Economic Forum, that annual alpine gathering of the international corporate elite, releases a Global Risk Report each year. The 2018 report outlined a series of emerging future shocks that have the potential to "fundamentally upend your world". Alongside the risks of another global financial crisis and the "choking" of the internet by artificial-intelligence algorithms, the report listed the possibility of "the extinction of fish" and "not enough food to go around". "If an extreme weather event were to coincide with existing political instability or crop disease, we could see a major food crisis happen overnight," the report's authors said.
The tangle of problems that have come to be embedded in our food systems are deeply complex, almost beyond comprehension, seemingly beyond our control. Easier to shrug and ignore the multifaceted immorality of our gluttony; to continue eating too much and sending the excess to landfill where we can't see it, to let out our belts or invest in elastic-waisted pants. But can you look your children in the face and tell them that's how you're going to play things?
"I remember feeling ill, I remember feeling, 'This is unconscionable,' " says Ronni Kahn.The founder and CEO of food rescue charity OzHarvest is thinking back to a night around the turn of the century. In those days, she owned a boutique event company. Clients – corporations, banks, accountancy firms, the well-to-do – engaged her to create dazzling events.
On this occasion she conjured a "night at the market" at Sydney's Overseas Passenger Terminal for a thousand bank employees: piles of fruit and vegetables as decor, groaning cheese stands with wheels of parmesan, chefs cooking curries and noodles and fish on barbecues, towers of oysters waiting to be shucked, ice-cream stands and individually decorated cupcakes and mousses. "One of the best ways of showing success and generosity was through food. Nobody left my events needing to go to Maccas on the way home." Kahn remembers the night was "just exquisite". She also remembers thinking how obscene it was.
In an informal fashion, she had already started to tackle the problem of the mountains of food left after events: from the pillaged remains she would extract edible leftovers, load up her van and, often late at night, deliver them to Matthew Talbot, the homeless men's hostel in Sydney's Woolloomooloo. By 2004, she had closed her events company and started OzHarvest. Her thinking at the time was straightforward: there was good food, there were people who were hungry. She wanted to bring the two elements together. At the time, she didn't understand the environmental issues.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one-third of all food produced globally goes to waste. Think about that volume. Think of a third of your weekly fruit and vegetable shop and what that looks like. Think about a third of a crop of Riverina oranges. A third of a bakery's daily bread. A third of the food that emerges from the kitchens of food courts, cafes, restaurants around the country. Most of that waste ends up in landfill – in Australia each year, that's more than five million tonnes of food, enough to fill 9000 Olympic swimming pools.
It's well known that food production is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, but Kahn shares another statistic: "If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of carbon and methane gas after the US and China." She says that OzHarvest scoops up and delivers the equivalent of 25 million meals a year that otherwise would be dumped. But the work of OzHarvest, which is supported by Woolworths, and other food rescue organisations, including the Coles-backed SecondBite, barely scratch the surface of what we waste. "We, consumers, are responsible, and until such time as we take responsibility and change our behaviour, nothing is going to change," says Kahn.
"Don't shed tears over bread," OzHarvest's Alex Hemmer says. "We just can't cope with all the bread." I'm spending the day with him collecting food around the Sydney inner city for redistribution to charities. In the loading dock of one Woolworths supermarket, we stack the van with boxes of unsaleable food – including multiple plastic-wrapped loaves of day-or-two-old artisanal sourdough – and Alex tells me that to sell a couple of loaves a store needs to display 10 or more. A large proportion goes to waste.
The collateral damage of our food habits in the wealthy West is immense. With the indoctrination of decades of glossy food magazines and cooking shows, and the intoxicating contribution of culinary multi-culturalism, we have become habituated to the cornucopia, the voluptuous Renaissance still life, the towering piles of produce and a dazzling internationalism.
We, consumers, are responsible, and until such time as we take responsibility and change our behaviour, nothing is going to change.Ronni Khan
When we shop, we expect to find everything, from Korean gochujang paste to Italian parmesan to organic Peruvian quinoa and premium Thai fish sauce. As a former The Age Good Food Guideeditor, a hopeless food nut, I want everything. But these days when I shop, I'm uneasy. It feels wrong. These sophisticated, complex diets we run like prized sports cars use more ingredients, more flavourings, more oils and sauces and dressings and condiments – more ingredients which have been transported across the globe from more factories and production facilities which need to be fuelled and then go on to pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The food cultures from which a large number of Australians take our inspiration have not, historically, approached their food as we do. A Thai curry served in a village even now might allow only 50 grams of meat or less per person, as opposed to the greater volume of protein the same dish here typically includes. Much of the Italian food we love was born in peasant kitchens. From gizzard to stale bread slice to pig's ear, nothing was wasted. A plate of pasta never meant a pile of carbohydrates bigger than an old hen.
Today, Alex and I visit the loading docks of nine different Woolworths and, in the stores' back passages, where airconditioning units roar and the aromas are of refrigeration and cardboard, we collect food that would otherwise be tossed: a box of slightly scruffy kipfler potatoes. A few packs of frozen meat, some chicken necks and rump steak. A dozen or more 250-gram plastic tubs of raw grated zucchini and others of carrot. A few bunches of radishes with slightly wilted stalks. Several boxes of punnets of soft raspberries. Custard apples, dragonfruit, celery. Brown-flecked bananas and red onions and bags of oranges and potatoes.
It all reminds me of my mother: she was fiercely frugal and, throughout my childhood, the kitchen bench would be covered every week with the contents of boxes of ageing fruit and vegetables she'd bought from the local fruit and vegetable merchant at a discount. She'd cut away bad bits, soak things such as celery or cabbage or capsicum in water to revive them, then make vats of soup from the vegetables and pots of compote with the fruit. Mum judged the viability of a food item by smell and taste, ignoring use-by dates. "We've got to change our label system," says Ronni Kahn. "It's one of the huge contributors to food waste." She believes use-by dates mainly serve manufacturers' interests and should only be taken as a guide.
The van is getting full now and Alex does a couple of drop-offs: from the bounty we've gathered, he curates a box of soft fruit and runs it into a centre that supports drug users, many of whom have dental issues; he drops cartons of vegetables to a women's and children's centre in the heart of Redfern, and more to a church organisation down the road. Volunteers crowd around the van when we arrive and one tells me that on Wednesdays, food pick-up days, those in need bring their own chairs to sit in the queue to wait for the doors to open.
Alex drives back into the city for two more pickups. I stay in the van on the street while he dashes into a small Woolworths that typically only has a box or two for him. It's lunchtime. People pass: a man carrying two plastic bottles of juice in one hand; someone carrying a pack of Pringles and a carton of flavoured milk; a woman with a plastic bag holding several plastic takeaway containers of food; two men with checked shirts and big guts.
At street level, we don't see the collective damage we do. You do, though, in the bowels of city office buildings. Now Alex swings the van into yet another underground loading dock. As we head to the service lifts – a corporate office on the 24th floor has catering leftovers for us – we pass a row of industrial bins, eight or more of them, each multiple cubic metres in capacity. They overflow with the remains of office workers' lunches. Images flash through my head: the rubbish truck's mechanised arms hoisting a bin high and upending it into its stinking, yawning pit, then repeating the action over and over. I picture trucks all over the city, all over the country, doing that time and again, then, when they are full, rumbling off in convoys to landfill sites into which they tip the evidence of our great thoughtless consumption.
Still, Alex and I have to eat, too. We drive through a city noisy with entreaties to our appetites – "hot choc Tuesday", "$15 chicken burger and drink", "all you can meat, $35", "in pizza we crust" – to a Chinatown food court. We order two bowls of laksa.
There are scales in the OzHarvest vans so drivers can record the daily volumes of the food collected and delivered but Alex has been working part time for OzHarvest for years and reckons he's pretty good these days at assessing the weight of anything just by feel. I ask him how much laksa he thinks we have in our bowls. He picks his bowl up and lifts it up and down. A kilogram, he says.
It's cheap laksa. It would rate poorly if I were reviewing it. I'm one of those silly people who likes to post pictures of food on Instagram but this one doesn't make the cut – an oily, inauthentic broth, a small pile of noodles, four prawns in each bowl. I try not to think too much about the prawns. According to a 2015 Greenpeace report, Dodgy Prawns, about two-thirds of the 50,000 tonnes of prawns Australians eat each year are imported, mostly from Chinese and south-east Asian prawn farms. "Coastal prawn farming development is estimated to have contributed to as much as 38 per cent of mangrove forest loss worldwide," the report said. "Prawn farming operations are often associated with land degradation, negative impacts on the environment through discharge of sediments, pharmaceuticals and chemicals with waste-water. The introduction of non-native species, spread of disease to the wild, and the sustainability of wild-caught fish used in prawn feeds are also key issues." And then the issue of labour exploitation, from "debt bondage to physical abuse". The plight of many workers was "truly heartrending".
The report said prawn imports to Australia had doubled in the past 15 years. Imported prawns are cheap. Cheap food is cheap for a reason.
I can't finish my laksa. There's simply too much of it. And Alex says we have to get back on the road. As I follow him out of the food court, past empty tables bearing the tragic remains of people's lunches – a plate of half-eaten rice, lap cheong sausage and greens, multiple bowls still holding broth and noodles – Alex makes a comment about Instagram. "It's a hedonistic rabbit hole." He has friends who've fallen into its competitive trap. "The constant need to get bigger and better – 'We've got to get to that new burger place.'" Got to get a pic of that milkshake with fairy floss on top. Got to get the hamburger with a dozen layers.
A couple of weeks after my day on the road with Alex, I go for lunch at a ramen cafe I like a lot, Rising Sun in Sydney's Newtown. I sit at the counter in front of the kitchen and eat the best gyoza in town and chat with chef Nick Smith. I ask him about food waste. The first thing he tells me about is the Instagrammers.
"Often you can pick them before they sit down because they're head-to-toe in brand names." On occasions, the brand names – on wallets, handbags, sunglasses – appear in the background of the Instagram shot of their ramen. The 'grammers, Nick tells me, are the ones who most frequently walk away from the table leaving plates unfinished, sometimes barely touched.
"They come in to get the shot and go; it's kind of trophy dining, I guess." Nick says he feels "a bit used" when waiters bring most of the food the 'grammers have ordered back to the kitchen. He grew up having to finish what was on his plate. "You were appreciative of whatever was on the table." His grandmother was a concentration camp survivor. When he was a child, he asked her why she had numbers on her arm. She told him it was her phone number.
Nick is ultra-conscious about food waste and, as often as possible, finds ways to give ingredients a second life. He might, for example, turn the dried mushrooms that flavour a stock into a vegan XO sauce, or kombu seaweed that has given the stock its initial flavour into a rich Vegemite-like paste. Five whole chooks cooked slowly make enough broth for 120 bowls of ramen. Nick worries that perhaps his ramen serving sizes are a little large but "if we under-portioned we'd get savaged".
He is too polite to call the Instagrammers' behaviour mindless, so I'll do it for him. But I shouldn't be too harsh: almost all of us are mindless eaters. I'm a mindless eater. One morning while I'm working on this article I have breakfast at a cafe. Bacon and eggs. The bacon was average. There was too much of it. I left some on my plate. I wondered as I ate it where it had come from. Every mouthful carries a consequence.
To eat meat in the volumes we do, it must be produced on an industrial scale. Most of the meat we eat is produced on factory farms, which means enormous inputs of water and grain for feed. Recently, I started to watch the Australian documentary Dominion, which looks at how we abuse and exploit animals. Its narrators include the American actor and prominent vegan Joaquin Phoenix. His voice is hypnotic.
"Most people consider themselves animal lovers," he says. "We recognise them not as objects but as complex beings with whom we share the planet, our lives, our homes." As he narrates, the footage is of a man running on the beach with a joyous border collie, of dolphins, a koala mother and her joey. But as Phoenix keeps talking, things get darker – drone footage of a factory farm and its thousands of penned beasts, thousands of ducks in a dark shed, an abattoir's brutal and bloodied machinery. I am anxious now and when the cameras move into an industrial piggery and reveal the tiny bodies of multiple dead piglets lying around their mother, I hit "stop" on my remote. I am a coward. I don't want to know. We don't want to know.
A large number of us keep eating bacon and fat, feed-lotted steaks and an average 50 kilograms of chicken each a year. We eat meat like that in spite of the fact that dietary guidelines say that a standard serve of red meat, chicken or fish is about 100 grams – small enough to hold in your palm and enclose with your fingers.
A major study was published in the journal Science last year. Titled Reducing food's environmental impacts through producers and consumers, it explored the environmental impacts of animal products. "The impacts of animal products can markedly exceed those of vegetable substitutes," its authors say. "To such a degree that meat, aquaculture, eggs and dairy use 83 per cent of the world's farmland and contribute 56 to 58 per cent of food's different emissions, despite producing only 37 per cent of our protein and 18 per cent of our calories."
Joseph Poore is the University of Oxford expert who led the research. You don't want to know what he had to say about it: "A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication [such as algal blooms and fish kills], land use and water use," he said.
A vegan diet will go much further in reducing our individual environmental footprint than cutting down our air miles or buying an electric car. Poore's views match the conclusions of an international commission convened by an Oslo-based NGO, EAT, and The Lancet medical journal. In February, the commission published its findings and recommended a new diet – the flexitarian "planetary health diet", largely plant-based but which can include modest amounts of fish, meat and dairy. For now, I'm clinging tight to that word, modest.
For a long time, my favourite food-shopping destination in Sydney was the fish markets. I'd be wide-eyed as a child as I passed hauls of shiny-eyed snapper and tumbles of baby octopus, oysters shucked and unshucked and umpteen types of fin fish, hunks of swordfish and towering piles of prawns and glossy, spiky sea urchins. The market's website lists its sustainability principles and says they are "backed by a clear implementation plan and internal systems to ensure delivery of this commitment".
But regardless, these days I can't help but look at the fish market with different eyes: the swaggering excess, the vast quantities of crayfish and shellfish and seafood baskets consumed by busloads of tourists. And visiting around Easter and Christmas is repulsive. I won't go then any more; I can't bear to watch as people push and shove and fill their coolers to the brim with hundreds of dollars of catch from our depleted oceans.
I won't ever be able to turn my back on the joy that food gives me, but I'm trying to be a more mindful consumer and eater, to eat less meat and more plants, to follow in my mother's waste-not-want-not footsteps. And I'm buoyed by the efforts of a growing band of people like Ronni Kahn, who feels she has found her life's purpose in her work to spread the message about food waste, and renowned Italian chef Massimo Bottura. His Modena restaurant is No. 1 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list but his not-for-profit organisation Food for Soul works to "create and sustain community kitchens around the world and raise awareness on the issues of food waste and social isolation"
We can't have everything. Children know they can't have everything they want. For their sake, it's time we learnt the same lesson.