by Bich Huong
As the New Year holidays draw to a close, many people report being shocked to see special foodstuff for the Tet feasts - including chung cakes, lean pork sausage and boiled chickens - ending up in rubbish bins while many poor people go hungry.
The wasteful image causes more surprise than despair because it indicates that more and more people in this once struggling nation have joined the throw-away habits of the wealthy West. It is more shocking when one considers that while Viet Nam is a newcomer to the group of middle-income countries, it still has a poverty rate above 20 per cent.
A quick check of housewives revealed that some threw away a couple of chung cakes because damp weather spoiled them. Others said that they reluctantly threw away festive food because they did not have enough space in their refrigerators.
Pham Thi Loi, 58, of Ha Noi's Cau Giay District, said that every Tet celebration, her family made or bought at least six chung cakes to place on the altar as offerings to their ancestors. Like many others, they also prepared other dishes for Tet, including boiled chicken, dried bamboo-shoot soup and spring rolls.
Loi said that Tet, as most foreigners realised, was the time when relatives, neighbours and friends visited and ate meals with a family, adding that everyone wanted the feasts to be well-prepared. "Food must be enough for all visitors because no one wants to appear stingy," she said.
However, a few days before Tet, Loi, like most Vietnamese housewives, started worrying if all the food would be eaten, "but I still bought plenty just to make sure there would be enough".
Office employee Vu Minh Nguyet, 25, spent Tet with her family in northern Vinh Phuc Province. She said she felt distressed that from Lunar New Year's Eve to the fourth day of the first lunar month, her family boiled a chicken every day. "We could not eat it all and had to store much of it in fridge," she said, wondering how her parents would ever manage to finish it all off.
Professor Ngo Duc Thinh, former director of the Viet Nam Institute of Culture Studies, said that to Vietnamese, Tet was not only a special occasion for the family gathering but also for expressing gratitude to their ancestors. They believe that offerings cannot only express their filial love, but that an abundantly prepared celebration could bring a prosperous new year.
In addition, hosts made a point of hospitality. They usually prepared more food than needed meaning that there was plenty was still left on table when everyone was full. This explains why so many Vietnamese families over-stock with food.
"Although a well-prepared Tet feast helps enrich Vietnamese cuisine and preserves a cultural tradition, the wastage is unacceptable," Thinh said.
He said that the wastage was not only a cultural matter, but had now become an environmental concern about using resources sustainably. He added that preserving tradition should not mean creating wastage.
Thinh admitted that it would take time to change the custom, noting that if Viet Nam passed regulations over the issue they would be hard to enforce. He said the image of thrown-away chung cakes and other Tet food was not positive, considering the number of poor people.
While Viet Nam recently became a middle-income country, the Government is still granting rice to support poverty stricken people across the country. This year, 15 provinces, mostly suffering from natural disasters, asked the Government to supply rice to supplement the lean harvest, which coincided with the holiday.
Festive food waste is also a big problem in developed countries. In Britain, as The Guardian reported in 2012, Britons threw away the equivalent of two million turkeys, five million Christmas puddings and 74 million mince pies during Christmas.
The wastage reached a startling 230,000 tonnes, according to the Love Food Hate Waste campaign run by Britain's waste advisory body. In the United States, the amount of food waste triples in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year.
Globally, according to a Food and Agriculture Organisation report, roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption – about 1.3 billion tonnes – ends up as rubbish. World food waste costs US$750 million annually. It not deprives the poor but wastes water and other resources. Yet about 870 million people reportedly go hungry every day.
Last year, the UN Environment Programme launched a campaign "Think Eat Save _ Reduce Your Foodprint" to push for a reduction in food wastage. So, Thinh recommends that people think first before any celebration and calculate how much is enough. He even ventured that traditional values or filial love for the ancestors must not be associated with waste. — VNS