Nobody fights food waste like the Danes. Over a recent five-year period, Denmark slashed its discarded food by 25 percent.
Evidence of this improvement is everywhere. The charity fundraiser WeFood sells edible but unsellable groceries on the cheap, and its Copenhagen store has become so successful, it is opening two more outlets. A food waste pop-up market allows customers to fill a shopping bag with elderly produce for about $3 U.S.
Meanwhile, supermarket chains REMA 1000, Coop and LIDL no longer offer quantity discounts that entice shoppers to overbuy, and many stores have “stop food waste areas” with discounted offerings nearing their best-by date. And several Danes created the Too Good To Go app to sell cut-rate, just-before-closing bakery and restaurant food.
Even the conservative-helmed Ministry of Environment and Food is getting into the act, recently hosting the Better Food for More People Summit at the Danish Parliament. I had a chance to explore Denmark’s success firsthand when I attended the conference.
So, what’s behind this success? Most answers start with the “who”—an activist named Selina Juul. The Russian émigré arrived in Denmark as a teenager and was struck by the opulence and, yes, waste, that contrasted with the empty store shelves of her childhood. Juul founded the group Stop Wasting Food in 2008 and continually pushes Danes to do just that.
And she gets a lot of credit. “Food waste has been on the agenda for the last three governments in large part to Selina’s actions,” said Claus Torp, the Deputy Director General of the Danish EPA, at the conference.
If one woman has almost singlehandedly prodded this sophisticated Nordic nation into realizing their wasteful ways, how did she do it? I set out to learn more by talking to everyday Danes.
Given that 25 percent improvement and the fawning press, I half expected to exit the airport into a world without waste. Instead, I got into Rene Hoffman’s taxi. As I learned, wasted food certainly exists in Denmark, but it is also a topic that most people are eager to discuss.
Hoffman told me: “In Denmark, in all aspects of life, people are starting to think about the environment and there’s a growing consciousness about being green. Not wasting food is part of that.”
To get a more food-centric perspective, I met up with Rikke Bruntse Dahl, communications manager at Copenhagen House of Food, a culinary education center aimed at improving the food quality in public kitchens. She echoed Hoffman’s thoughts on green behavior, but added another theme. “Sustainability is trendy and Danes like to think of ourselves as a trendy bunch, so minimizing food waste is also a way of showing that,” Dahl said.
That trendiness explains why the Danish Princess Marie attended the opening of WeFood and to some extent why a conservative government minister held a Better Food conference. But given the recent food waste progress, there had to be other, more permanent forces at play. I talked to several other people during my three-day visit, and heard plenty of theories on why Danes are leading the way on wasted food.
First of all, Denmark is a small country—as in, population-of-Wisconsin small. As Juul has demonstrated, that compact size and culture has its advantages. “It’s relatively easy to spread the message across the press. Especially when the message is good, like Stop Wasting Food,” Juul said.
Second, food is expensive in Denmark. Danes spend about twice what Americans do on food, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data (the most recent numbers are 11.1 percent and 6.4 percent of total expenditures spent on food, respectively). And that has an impact. Michael Stroh, an American ex-pat I struck up a conversation with on the street has noted and experienced that factoid. “The younger generation of Danes are very aware of the cost of food, as it’s extremely expensive, especially as a student,” said Stroh, 34, who was that proverbial poor student not long ago while studying architecture in Copenhagen.
Additionally, most Danes are handy in the kitchen. For Dahl, this cultural advantage is partly due to the expense of convenience foods. “Regardless of background and life situation, the vast majority of Danish people can still cook at least the most basic meals and bake basic bread,” Dahl said. “Using leftovers and getting the portion sizes right is easier when you can cook from scratch and be creative with whatever you’ve got in the fridge. Unlike in the U.K. and the U.S., we have not [yet] reached the point where cooking skills are lost throughout a generation.”
Even with young people who may not be baking much bread, there’s still a decent amount of culinary common sense. I asked high-schooler Emily Hemmingson for her take on the matter while she was waiting for a bus in the city center. “I go to a boarding school where we eat food from the last day and the day before. It tastes the same as the first time and sometimes even better,” said Hemmingson, 15.
As well as praising the practical, she also waxed philosophical. “Waste is everywhere and nowhere,” Hemmingson offered. When one’s teenagers spout Zen kōans on cue to strangers, a country is doing something right.
Compared to its American counterparts, Denmark has some structural advantages, too. For example, smaller portions and fridges make it harder to waste food. That’s true throughout Europe, though.
And yet, another common European habit—eschewing doggie bags—also exists in Denmark. But Juul’s organization is addressing that behavior. She has enlisted 300 restaurants to carry “Goodie Bags” (which feature the word ‘Doggie’ crossed out) to reframe and encourage the practice of leftover taking.
Also, Danes see their food waste problem through a useful lens: a culture of frugality. Stroh, the American ex-pat, noted a striking difference between his American past and his Danish present. “In terms of cultural differences, I think the Danes are quite practical and thrifty, especially the older Danes I’ve met who experienced hardships during World War II,” Stroh said. “That thrift, of course, affects one’s relation with food.”
While the same mindset can and does apply to much of Europe, this food thrift has a uniquely Danish strain. For Dahl, from the Copenhagen House of Food, it comes down to some good old home economics. “We are a nation of housewives. We are brought up to not waste resources and get the most out of what we’ve got, like housewives back in the day,” Dahl said. “The thinking—and success—behind Danish design is similar. It’s made to last. We never really entered the ‘disposables culture.’ That goes for food, too.”
This article is written by Jonathan Bloom & originally appeared in National Geographic.