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From table to dump: analyzing household food consumption and waste

Meet Trudeau Scholar Tammara Soma

Raised in West-Java, Indonesia, Tammara Soma witnessed the rapid urbanization that transformed fields of green rice paddies and productive farms into a landscape of skyscrapers, malls, and expansive highways.
For Soma, it was the perfect illustration of how the quest for modernization often fails to take the food system into consideration. The experience has provided the basis for Tammara’s studies in urban planning and environmental studies.
After completing a master’s of science in planning degree at the University of Toronto, where she was awarded the Dr. Wayne Caldwell scholarship for her contribution to food system planning, Soma was awarded a Metcalf Foundation grant, which funded her work as a food system planner for Sustain Ontario, Ontario’s food and farming organization. Her current doctoral work at U of T  focuses on urban planning policies, household food consumption, and food-wasting practices in urban Indonesia.  Moving beyond the “farm to table” discourse, Soma analyzes the trajectory of food from “table to dump” – investigating household food consumption and food waste in a developing country.
Now, Soma is also one of eight members of the U of T community receiving a prestigious Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholarship this year. (Read about the four students and four alumni named Trudeau scholars in 2014.) 

Tell us about your research project and its central idea.
Food waste is a major global concern, with 30 to 50% of food produced for human consumption wasted annually. My dissertation will investigate the phenomenon of food consumption and food waste in the developing country of Indonesia. Many cities in Southeast Asia, such as Manila and Jakarta, are rapidly industrializing. In the urban centres of Indonesia, there is extreme income disparity and a growing middle and upper class group. This is the fourth most populous country in the world, so food waste and food packaging are becoming a growing issue, especially due to poor waste infrastructure in many cities. My study will analyze how structural changes such as the increase in big box grocery stores, urbanization, and the development of gated enclaves influence the patterns of food provisioning and consumption of urban households in Bogor, Indonesia. My study will also analyze whether cultural and social factors influence household food wasting practices.

What led you to choose this research project in particular?
Planning decisions have an impact on how people live their daily lives. The practice of food provisioning – which includes shopping, cooking, eating, and disposal – is definitely affected by how a city is planned. The closure of wet markets or the siting of a big box store will affect where people can buy food and the types of food they consume. Urbanization has also affected where people work and live. People with long commutes may not be able to cook food from scratch, so food sitting in the fridge might go bad before it is eaten. Also, “waste” in one culture may actually be a delicacy in another culture, so the notion of “waste” is not static. Food waste research is fascinating, as it lies within the intersection of culture and structure. By understanding how each of the variables influences the others, planners can make better decisions to help prevent food waste.

What is new or surprising about your research?
One comment I get when talking about my research is “people in developing countries are too poor to waste food.” While this may be true in some cases, there is a growing middle- and upper-income population in many cities in developing countries. In fact, scholars have confirmed that food consumption patterns of middle- and upper-income groups in developing countries are “converging” with the West. Obesity is actually growing in Indonesia, and so are Western fast food franchises.

My research is new as it will challenge the simplistic assumptions around food consumption and food wasting in developing countries. Food waste is a complex matter, especially due to the numerous factors that influence an individual’s decision to waste or not to waste. My research is the first to study urban food waste in Indonesia and the first to take into account culture, religion, and land use planning considerations in food waste studies.

In your opinion, who will most benefit from your findings?
In countries such as Indonesia, household waste collection is unfortunately the domain of the privileged. Low-income individuals often open dump or burn their waste on a daily basis. Landfills in Indonesia are mostly uncontrolled, with food waste mixing in with other wastes, contaminating groundwater as well as creating the greenhouse gas methane. The increase in non-biodegradable food waste packaging is also creating a major health and environmental hazard in Indonesia. Food packaging waste increases the habitat for mosquitoes, which carry the dengue virus. The lack of organized recycling programs in cities results in non-biodegradable plastic clogging sewers and waterways and contributes to flooding.

I dedicate my research to my nephew Arfan, who passed away in Indonesia at the age of three from the dengue fever. By addressing the issues around food waste and food packaging, residents will be able to live in a healthier and safer environment.

Within the next three to five years, what impact could your research have on the Canadian public policy debate?
Canada wastes approximately $27 billion dollars worth of food annually. Meanwhile, urban food insecurity and food insecurity in many indigenous communities are growing. In addition, the management of food waste through residential composting programs is not evenly practised in all municipalities in Canada.

I hope that my research will contribute to a waste directive in Canada whereby the dumping of food waste in landfills will be illegal and the source separation of food waste will be mandatory across the nation. Within the next three to five years, I hope that my research will contribute to a more holistic planning of cities and that food system considerations will be an essential factor in Canadian urban planning.