Food Waste – What Do Women Have to Do with It?

by Siera Vercillo – @sieravercillo

There are gender differences in the causes and consequences of food waste. Women are largely responsible for food across the supply chain from the field to the fork by growing, processing, cooking and distributing food in diverse ways globally. Therefore, women and men have different experiences, knowledge, challenges and needs in relation to food. Efforts to mitigate food waste need to incorporate a gender analysis within the scoping, piloting, scale, monitoring and evaluation processes in order to work towards food justice for all.

1Women’s important roles processing and selling food for local markets
Photo taken by Siera Vercillo in Sierra Leone

2Women’s important roles cooking and distributing food
Photo taken by Siera Vercillo in Sierra Leone

Across the world, women are primarily responsible for food production and for feeding their families. In the global south, where 1/3 of all food is wasted at the farm gate, and in the global north where 1/3 of food is wasted at the retail and consumer levels, women’s roles on the farm, in the factory, and at home, as well as their empowerment, access to resources, and knowledge matters a lot. In sub-Saharan Africa for example, women farmers are responsible for as much as 70%  of the production, 90% of the processing and 80% of the storage of food, suggesting that interventions to reduce food loss must target, be tailored for, and engage women.

3Women’s important roles in producing food for export
Photo taken by Siera Vercillo in a tomato greenhouse in Turkey

Despite the important roles women hold in food production, they receive only 10-30% of the income generated from farming, own much less land compared to men, and have more difficulty in accessing transportation, extension, knowledge services, loans and credit, in addition to having more time constraints due to domestic and care responsibilities. With multiple socio-economic and political barriers, women often lack the knowledge about food standards, have limited access to resources, and are often excluded from decision making in producer organizations where food is often stored, which are all important dimensions for preventing food loss.

04Women and men cassava cooperative, where women tend to be excluded from decision-making and profit
Photo taken by Siera Vercillo in Ghana

With gender disparity and differentiation normalized, not focusing on women and gender issues as part of efforts to reduce food waste would default any intervention outputs to be in line with the inequitable status quo, which is usually designed and planned for by men in science, government and the private sector. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimates that reducing gendered inequality in access to resources in agriculture globally could decrease the number of hungry people by 100–150 million as a direct result of women’s important contributions to agriculture. There are also gender differentiated roles, perceptions, attitudes, knowledge and practices related to solid waste disposal even in urban contexts where women tend to be more responsible for separating waste.

5Women’s roles in disposing of and managing waste
Photo taken my Siera Vercillo in Ghana

Although new technological innovations are ever more affordable and easy to use to reduce food loss and/or re-use waste, social change is what is required for preventative measures. For instance, women have used solar drying techniques and pickling to use up surplus food. Socio-economic and cultural norms that exclude certain people from certain activities based on gender and other social identities need to be considered in the design and implementation of technical innovations.

Continuing to encourage uptake, adoption and shifts in behaviours requires understanding why people act the way they do and how they can change, which is highly determined by gender norms. An initiative should not reinforce gender inequality, and interventions and/ processes need to not just simply include women, but work to shift the power relations between women and men.

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7In some places, interventions need to explicitly target women-only livelihoods and in others they need to involve men and other authority figures
Photos taken by Siera Vercillo in Sierra Leone and Ghana

Any policy and intervention operating at any point in the food supply chain to reduce food loss must address the three Rs:

  1. Recognize where there are gendered differences and relations that impact food loss;
  2. Represent those who are often left out in the planning, monitoring and evaluation;
  3. Focus outputs that Redistribute resources and assets in ways that challenge the inequitable status quo.

As a researcher, a good first step would be to collect gender disaggregated data and analyze that data using a gendered perspective. Further, any recommendations made need to focus on shifting strict gender norms that create differences and inequality by involving men in these discussions.

8Empowerment is when one can realize a world different than her own and bring herself to act upon it
Photo taken by Siera Vercillo on International Women’s Day in Sierra Leone

 To find out more about Siera’s work visit http://mydevelopmentdiary.wordpress.com