By Punya Srivastava
The UN’s theme of Think.Eat.Save to commemmorate World Environment Day, is an opportunity to acknowledge the sacred food culture of this land, says Punya Srivastava
On the occasion of World Environment Day, the UN’s theme:Think.Eat.Save: Reducing Food Print, puts the spotlight squarely on the imperative need to eliminate the criminal wastage of food all over the world. In this context, perhaps the West has much to learn from the East, which has traditionally seen food as sacred. That being so, the culture has strongly emphasised the vital need to respect food and to receive it as an offering from the Divine. There is so much more to food than just a medium to stanch hunger or whet the tastebud. Most of us sense this instinctively, but the Upanishads actually puts it down in black and white.
According to the Taittiriya Upanishad, once Bhrigu, one of the seven ancient sages and the facilitators of creation, went to his father Varuna and asked him, “What is Brahman?” Varuna replied, “First learn about food, breath, eye, ear, speech; then seek to know that from which these are born, by which they live, for which they search and to which they return. That is Brahman.” Bhrigu meditated and found that food is Brahman. From food are born all creatures, by food they grow, and to food they all return.
Saint Gyaneshwar, ancient Marathi poet and saint, known for his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, also says, “Food itself is Brahman”. The whole universe originates from, is sustained by, and merges into Brahman. Similarly, all living beings originate from, survive on and merge into food.
The sacredness of food is also reflected in the offering made to the gods, which invariably features fruits and certain types of food such as panchamrut (made of a combination of curds, honey, ghee, milk, ganga jal) and so on.
Many households even today also offer the food prepared at home to the household altar and only then do they consume it.
That apart, there is considered to be an intimate connection between the food we eat and the person we become. Satvic food which is generally considered to be fresh, light, and wholesome (fruits, vegetables, milk, grains) is said to be high on health and spiritual prowess; rajasic food, considered to be spicy and pungent, is said to increase desire, and tamasic food which is considered to be stale and heavy, is said to reduce life force. Food, therefore, is considered to have a powerful impact on our character and consciousness.
From these guidelines has arisen much of Indian cuisine. Since freshness was considered imperative, food was cooked and consumed almost instantly. Each meal was freshly prepared, with very little carry over. To ensure that there was no wastage, the amount of food required for the household was measured and made judiciously. Leftovers were however ingeniously reused, for waste was considered sacrilege.
Even today many of these practices still prevail, though the widespread use of refrigeration and the convenience of cooking in large quantities have come in the way of eating fresh food. Nevertheless, deeply ingrained habits have enabled the Indian to buck the habit of buying tinned or precooked food. Indians still, by and large, prefer to cook food from scratch and nurse a thinly-veiled suspicion of newfangled ways of preparing food. However, we have allowed a largescale invasion of technology into our kitchens with the use of mixers, blender, microwave and so on, which too subtly distort food value.
Thanks to the fact that most of us prepare our food from scratch, we are still in touch with the origin of foods. Fish is obtained from fish markets where they are freshly gutted and cleaned, and vegetables are still bought from the vegetable markets. We are therefore still not as distant from the production of food as our western counterparts are, and are therefore less inclined to devalue it. The concept of using food as entertainment, such as throwing pies at each other, is something that still militates against the Indian conscience, though sadly enough, more and more thoughtlessly smear icing on the birthday person’s face.
Gradually, despite our heritage, we too are becoming a fast food culture, shopping at malls and air-conditioned spaces, eating endlessly at restaurants, cooking large portions of food and junking them thoughtlessly. Where earlier food was partaken mindfully and with gratitude, because it was scarce, we have now entered the pasture of plenty (although we still have our hungry masses!) and with that comes a sense of entitlement and a consequent taking for granted. This is what makes it easy to waste food and dump it wantonly in landfills.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), every year 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted. This, if used properly, would be enough to prevent malnutrition in children and feed the hungry of the world. “The exponential rise in the demand for food and concurrent devaluing of food has led farmers to adopt chemical fertilisers, pesticides and technologies like genetically modified (GM) crops with the hope of making ends meet. Of course, despite that farmers are struggling to earn a decent livelihood. Rampant use of fertilisers and pesticides has led to deterioration in the nutritional content of food produced, and left residual toxins in our foods. GM crops also have adverse health and environmental impacts. We are poisoning the very earth which supports and nourishes us. Add the problem of food wasted by the more affluent around the world, and we are slowly but surely sucking the life out of our planet,” says Sreedevi Laxmi Kutty, volunteer with Urban Leaves organization.
It is in order to address this malaise that the United Nation came up with its Think. Eat. Save campaign for this year’s World Environment Day, celebrated on June 5 every year since 1973. It is an anti-food waste and food-loss campaign initiated to encourage the worldwide food-print reduction. The UN exhorts that we should source organic, local and seasonal food which eliminates the toxins of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and reduces food miles. It also suggests that we should work towards reducing food wastage in our homes and in the food supply chain.
Food wastage not only cripples the demand-supply ratio, it also affects the environment. Wasteful food consumption is leading to unsustainable demand for natural resources. According to FAO, to acquire 1 litre of milk, around 1000 litres of water is required. Moreover, when large quantities of food goes wasted instead of feeding hungry mouths, it ends up in a landfill — ultimately contributing to global warming by releasing methane gas.
Some steps forward
|Mountains of wasted food: A sin against the Earth|
India has year-round festivities going on in one or the other part of the land. Such festivities see huge amounts of food being wasted too. To counter this wastage, many individuals and organisations have come forward. One such initiative is Annakshetra Foundation by Centre for Development Communication (CDC), Jaipur. Initiated in 2010, Annakshetra collects leftover food from marriages, parties, restaurants, temples and other social gatherings, and through a proper procedure, supplies it to those in need. “Around a million people have benefitted so far. We have a network of 1,500 donors comprising caterers, marriage hall and restaurant owners as well as individuals. On receiving the calls, the Annakshetra van goes to the site to collect food. After collection, the food is tested whether fit for consumption or not. It is then refrigerated and served to labourers, slum dwellers, at orphanages and shelter homes the next morning,” shares Dr. Vivek Agrawal, trustee secretary of CDC.
If the collected food is found unsuitable for human consumption, it is sent for composting into organic manure. By recycling, Annakshetra ensures that the bio-waste does not land into landfill sites thus preventing environmental damage and improving agricultural output by improving soil. Annakshetra recently held Annakshetra Mahabhoj under UNEP’s ‘Feeding 5000’ programme to support its ‘Think.Eat.Save’ campaign. “Though the UNEP programme ‘Feeding 5000’ focuses on collecting surplus agricultural harvests, Annakshetra’s focus is on saving leftover cooked food. The surplus harvest still has some shelf-life and may sustain longer, but wastage of cooked food becomes perishable very fast and represents an important potential source of food. For this reason, Annakshetra Mahabhoj was not held on 5th June, 2013, but on Akshay Tritiya celebrated on 13th May, 2013 in Rajasthan. Promoting donation of the left-over food from marriage parties assured a better success to reach the 5000 people target,” Dr. Agarwal concludes.
On somewhat similar lines runs the latest initiative by the Indian Food Banking Network (IFBN). In collaboration with the Government of Delhi, IFBN has started a drive where one can donate the leftover food by simply sending a text to it. They collect leftover food as well as grains, pulses, oil, spices from individuals and distribute them to all those in need through community-based agencies. Not only IFBN, even the world famous Mumbai Dabbawalas have come up with a unique strategy to take care of leftover food – ‘Share My Dabba’. It is a joint initiative by Happy Life Welfare Society and The Dabbawala Foundation. All you need to do is put a ‘share’ sticker on your dabba containing leftover food. At the end of the day, all the marked dabbas are separated from the rest and distributed to hungry street children.
Not only organisations, but many individuals too are doing their bit to reduce food waste. Jyoti Verma, journalist with Plan your wedding and expecting mother, shares her experience. “During our baby shower, my husband and I stuck to a basic and simple North Indian cuisine with limited dishes. Not only does this save money and resources, it also helps reduce food wastage. Nothing beats the sense of guilt on seeing food being wasted because of superficial pomp and show,” she shares.
Ms Achala Jai Kishan, singer and home-maker, practises austerity in her kitchen as an everyday affair. Her leftover dals, veggies and chapattis find perfect roles in delicious paranthas, pulaos and pav bhajis the next day. “I find it criminal to dump leftovers in the kitchen bin. Food is sacred for us Indians. I try to prepare small batches of food as required. Still, if there is some left over daal or curry, I use them to make stuffed paranthas. I use leftover mixed vegetables to prepare delicious homemade pav bhaji. We must do our two bits to ensure sustainability on this planet,” she says.
“My family has a strict code of conduct as far as food is concerned. No one is allowed to waste food. If by chance I miss one meal, say lunch or dinner, then I have to finish it in the subsequent meal. Nothing new is prepared for me,” says Prachi Parihar, a second year student of FDDI. It is this respect which we need to inculcate in our generation to reduce the unmindful wastage of food.
We can also practice certain guidelines to help reduce our food print. For starters, plan a food menu before each trip to the grocery store, so it’s easier to keep track of when vegetables, fruits and other perishables need to be eaten throughout the week. Careful attention should also be given to how food is stored and wrapped in the refrigerator so it doesn’t spoil as quickly, and consumers should remember to buy only what they will eat.
Urban Leaves, a group working on urban community gardens, has decided to impart skills to urbanites to grow their own food – in their homes – on terraces, balconies, window sills or community food gardens.
Let us save our environment, one bite at a time. We need to be like saint Thiruvalluvar who used to sit down with a needle placed along his plate so as to pick up any spilled rice grain, in order to avoid food wastage.
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• Bathe, or at least wash your hands, face and feet, before you begin to eat. Sit while eating, in an isolated clean area. Face east if possible, the direction of the sun, the earth’s source of heat and fire. Eat alone, or with people you know and trust. Ensure that all your sense organs are satisfied by providing your dining room with pleasant music, fresh flowers, and the like.
• Only someone who loves you should be permitted to cook for you. Cooks in India are often selected from the priestly class so that there is at least some chance that while cooking, some spiritually uplifting vibrations may be transferred into the food. Women should not cook when they are menstruating because they are undergoing a cleansing process and should be relaxing instead.
• It is best if your right nostril functions when you eat, since it increases your digestive fire. You can cause it to function by lying on your left side for a few minutes before the meal, by plugging your left nostril, by closing your left nostril with the middle finger of your right hand and breathing rhythmically through your right nostril for a few minutes, or by hooking your left arm over the back of a chair.
• Once all is in readiness, pray, give thanks to Nature for providing you with food, and thank whichever deity you worship for being alive to eat it. Approach each food item with reverence and love, even if you are served something which you dislike but must eat. Suppose you are served rutabagas (turnip like vegetable), which you hate and you eat the rutabagas under duress, those vegetables will carry your dislike and hatred deep into your system and disturb your balance. Consume your food, even if you dislike it, with respect for the sacrifice it is making for you, and it will carry the harmonizing power of your prayer inside you instead.
• Before you begin your meal, feed someone else. Traditionally in India a five-fold offering is made: to the sacred fire, a cow, a crow, a dog and another human being, who might be a child, a beggar, or anyone else outside one’s own family. This is a practical thanks to Nature, a feeding of some of Her children in gratitude to Her for providing you some of Her other children as sacrifices for consumption. And, it is another way of controlling Ahamkara (egoism), an admission that the food is intended not for mere self-gratification but for the greater good of all beings. Feed anyone – a pet, a plant, a neighbour, a stranger- so you can experience a little of Nature’s joy, the joy which a mother feels when she feeds her children and watches them grow and develop in consequence.
From Effects of Ahara, www.indianscriptures.com