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A blog about economics in the South Caucasus.

Pride and Prejudice in Georgian Food Consumption


GEORGIAN “SUPRAS” AND POVERTY

Hospitality is one of the most prized aspects of the Georgian culture. Welcoming (literal translation: "respecting") guests is a matter of great pride for any family. My mother grew up in a small Imeretian village, and as she tells me, the kids of the family were not allowed to eat until the guests were fully "respected", i.e. properly fed. Even the poorest household in the village would go out of its way (and income) to impress its guests with a cornucopia of local delicacies, meats, veggies, and homemade wine. To this day, no social gathering or celebration would pass without a plentiful feast ("supra"), with layers upon layers of food amassed on the tables to “respect” the guests.

While not questioned by most Georgians, this feasting tradition may struck foreigners as unnecessarily extravagant for a poor nation. First, it creates a lot of food wastage, as guests rarely, if ever, manage to taste (let alone consume) every dish served during the hours-long celebration. Moreover, a lot of Georgians cannot really afford these traditional feasts. According to GeoStat, food, beverages and tobacco constitute about a quarter of total expenditures by an average Georgian household. Yet, this share is much higher for many people at the bottom of the income distribution. About 65% of Georgians report not having enough money to buy food at least once over the last 12 months; and 58% admit to having borrowed for food in the past six months (CRRC Caucasus Barometer, 2013). At the very extreme, it is a shame for the proud Georgian nation to see Tbilisi’s poor rummaging through garbage in search of anything to feed their families.

The piles of food on Georgian "supra" tables may be not easy to "digest" in the face of outright poverty experienced by many a Georgian poor. But would a cutback in the multi-layered "supras" make hungry people any better off?


INTERNATIONAL EVIDENCE

Food wastage is not a uniquely Georgian phenomenon. According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), about one third (sic!) of total food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. The figures concerning the colossal amounts of food being routinely tossed away are often presented in conjunction with data about the vast number of hungry people all over the world (more than 800 million), and the fact that hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined (World Food Programme). But other than expressing moral indignation, is there really much we can do about food waste? Would there be less hunger in the world (or Georgia), if we start having more modest "supras"? Not necessarily.

The complete elimination of Food Loss and Waste (FLW), as defined by FAO, is not possible and maybe even undesirable. A synthesis report, prepared for FAO 2013 by Ulrich Koester and his colleagues, assigns FLW to four categories: 1) overestimates; 2) unavoidable losses; 3) economically justifiable losses, and, finally, 4) unjustifiable losses.

 

    1.  Overestimation is caused by the fact that food used as animal feed or donated to the poor is also counted as FLW. While feeding stale bread to the pigs may not be ideal, it serves as an input into future production of food. Food donations to the poor do not represent waste and, moreover, directly help reduce hunger. Finally, measuring FLW in tons rather than calories makes it difficult, if not impossible, to have an accurate estimate of what nutritional value the world is losing.
    2. Unavoidable losses are, for instance, losses due to storage or transportation, which may difficult and often impossible to avoid in a real market economy. If we want to consume agricultural products over the entire year, we should accept the fact that their weight or quality can be negatively affected. Not every apple or potato will survive a lengthy storage period.
    3. Economically justifiable losses. Theoretically, households can reduce food wastage by buying smaller quantities of food on a need basis. However, it makes a lot of sense for families to shop once in a while as a means of reducing the time and money costs associated with shopping. More frequent shopping (and similar measures) would create other types of inefficiencies, while not helping reduce global hunger.
    4. Unjustifiable losses could, indeed, be a target for policy interventions such as improved information and technology. According to Koester et al, even though losses happen all along the value chain, the largest gains can be achieved at the consumer level.


In any case, while food waste could be somewhat reduced, it is important to remember that losses avoided do not automatically translate into nutrition gains for the hungry.


OVERCOMING GEORGIAN PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

As an ordinary urban housewife, I would love avoiding waste by transforming my food scraps into someone else’s meal. However, in trying to do so I am constrained in a number of ways. First, unlike second hand clothing, l cannot share perishable food with the poor of Sub-Saharan Africa, who may need it the most. Second, while I could share food with people in my immediate environment (poor relatives and neighbors), doing so requires access to information that proud Georgians may not volunteer. Moreover, by offering food, I may inadvertently put the recipient in an awkward position.

Yet, food sharing is apparently quite common in Georgia’s poor rural areas where, as reflected in 2013 CRRC Caucasus Barometer data, every third household reports difficulties in access to food (in contrast with every 5th urban household). Rural community members know each other quite well, and invite those in need to dine at their tables. As we found out through business interviews, food staples donated by local businesses are often allocated to poor households through the local priests. Finally, the leftovers from the five-layer "supras", which might seem so wasteful at first glance, are typically distributed among poorer neighbors, keeping their families fed for a number of days. In the worst case scenario, food scraps end up being fed to farm animals.

While holding true for small Georgian towns and villages, this type of efficient sharing arrangements are not very customary in the capital city. Moreover, a typical Georgian urbanite is yet to discover the “doggy bag” concept – a euphemism invented to legitimize greater "efficiency" in restaurant food consumption (in 2013, about 50% of Tbilisi residents went at least once in 6 months to a restaurant according to CRRC data). While “doggy bags” are happily used in most North American cities, carrying home leftovers from a restaurant meal would be considered a shame in Georgia (much like in France and a few other European countries).

Just like the "doggy bag" has helped overcome prejudices concerned with frugal behavior in other cultural contexts, better education and institutional innovations – such as charity refrigerators – could free the proudly poor Georgians from the shackles of traditional profligacy. The good news is that, while perhaps not obvious to an outside observer, the Georgians are in principle capable of pragmatic behavior. For instance, we attach no social stigma to canning – a simple means of shifting consumption of otherwise perishable food products (mostly fruit and vegetables) from one season to another. 

Yes, of course, we can!

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Guest - Zurab Garakanidze on Monday, 06 October 2014 09:53

'...every third household reports difficulties in access to food (in contrast with every 5th urban household)' ----------- It is necessary to conduct serious research of three main indicators of food security of the country: 1) affordability, 2) availability, and 3) quality

'...every third household reports difficulties in access to food (in contrast with every 5th urban household)' ----------- It is necessary to conduct serious research of three main indicators of food security of the country: 1) affordability, 2) availability, and 3) quality
Guest - Nino Doghonadze on Saturday, 11 October 2014 18:44

Dear Zurab, of course, your point is legitimate for any extensive research on this topic. In this short article the main issue was affordability, rather than availability and quality. Obviously, we can not isolate those two other important dimensions either. However,when it comes to food for the poor, I believe, it is mostly available but not affordable non-high quality food.

Dear Zurab, of course, your point is legitimate for any extensive research on this topic. In this short article the main issue was affordability, rather than availability and quality. Obviously, we can not isolate those two other important dimensions either. However,when it comes to food for the poor, I believe, it is mostly available but not affordable non-high quality food.
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