Why this waste?

Why this waste?

Back in February, I found myself confronted with an ancient agricultural law after what I thought was an innocent visit to the supermarket.

I had, as per usual, made a bee-line for the bargains aisle, those yellow ‘Reduced’ labels beckoning to me like beacons across a stormy sea. Bread! 85p! Pizza! £1.95! Garlic Bread! 40p! 40p?! Must grab it!

It wasn’t until I got it home that I looked at the label properly. While the bread and pizza had been significant reductions, the garlic bread had been reduced by…wait for it… 7p. Seven measly pence.

I hadn’t intended to buy garlic bread. I had no need of garlic bread. But I snapped it up because it was a bargain, and I am a sucker for a bargain.

The thing is, I could easily have paid full price for that item. By God’s grace I am currently in a position to buy garlic bread for 47p. I can afford bread, meat, vegetables and pizza at full price, too. I don’t have to scour those shelves for bargains, thankfully. I could leave them for someone else.

An ancient principle

As I realised that, and noticed my greed in being so quick to grab a good deal for myself that I didn’t even stop to see if it was a good deal, that still, small voice in my soul reminded me of the ancient law given to Jewish farmers:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:9-10

The book of Ruth gives the most famous and beautiful example of this principle in action. After moving to Bethlehem with Naomi, Ruth went out to the fields where the barley harvest was just beginning, and gleaned the grain that the harvesters had missed. She ‘happened’ to find herself in Boaz’ bit of field (2:3) and found favour with him. So much so, in fact, that he told his workers to deliberately leave some extra bits of barley out for her to pick up (Ruth 2:15-16).

I’ve known that story since childhood, but now God began to show me that right in my supermarket sits an application that applies to my very non-rural, non-agricultural life. Here is a simple way that I can leave the ‘gleanings’ – the leftovers, the extras, the overstocked items – for those who need them more than me.

But what about the waste?

I wrote about it for Jubilee+, a Christian charity that helps churches in the UK promote mercy and justice in their communities. It was wildly popular. Or if not popular exactly, it gained a lot of ‘shares’ on social media. It also gained some push-back, though, mainly from people saying, “But won’t that food then go to waste?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer. I guess maybe some of it would, and perhaps if I was shopping just before closing time, or the shelf was really full of a given item, I might buy it. It didn’t sit comfortably, though.

Then a friend contacted me and asked if she could share the post on a US-based blog she edits, Propel Sophia. I of course said yes, and offered to tweak it a bit to make it more accessible for a global audience (the original focussed a lot on the phrase ‘yellow labels’, and I’m not sure every supermarket in every country sells its almost-out-of-date food at a reduced price marked with a yellow label).

She, Bronwyn, also asked the ‘waste’ question. So I gave it some proper thought.

Of course, one aspect of the question is to do with environmental concerns: if that food goes to waste it will be dumped in landfill sites, in all its plastic packaging, with all the issues that raises. We could ameliorate that problem by continuing to urge food suppliers to cut down on packaging or develop biodegradable options.

But however we dispose of it, the question of principle remains: isn’t it bad to waste food?

I’m sure some of the Israelite farmers wondered that as they saw their crops wilting and rotting at the edges of their fields. ‘What a waste! I could have used that, but God wants me to just leave it?’ This has echoes to me of the disciples watching Mary pour expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. “Why this waste?” they asked (Matthew 26:8, Mark 14:4), but John tells us that for Judas, at least, this question leapt to his lips “not because he cared about the poor” (John 12:6), but because he was thinking of the loss to himself.

But Jesus was clear: Mary was performing a beautiful act of worship that would be talked about forever (Mark 14:6-9). Sometimes, worshipping God looks wasteful. But it never is.

A God of extravagance

Time and time again in the Bible God shows himself to be a God of extravagance. He doesn’t seem to mind waste as we do. When he provided manna for the Israelites, there was more than enough for everyone each day, and whatever was left melted away – what a waste! But if the people took more than they needed, it rotted and became riddled with maggots (Exodus 16). When Jesus fed the five thousand, there were twelve baskets full of leftovers, and when he fed the four thousand, there were seven baskets left. This wasn’t because Jesus miscalculated, and he didn’t send the disciples off in a rush to find someone to donate the excess to. He is a God who provides abundantly for all our needs, and doesn’t mind who knows it.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t share our abundance with those who have need – quite the opposite – but to take what we don’t need just in case it gets thrown away is not loving to God or to our neighbours.

The coronavirus has had a devastating effect on physical health, mental health and economic health across the world. Many of our friends and neighbours are going to be facing deep financial challenges in the coming months and years. And you may, too. Let’s those of us who can afford to decide to leave the bargains for those who really need them. And maybe we can find ways to be more like Boaz, going above and beyond the requirement of the law to meet the needs of those God brings to our notice.

It’s been a challenge these last couple of months. I’m still drawn, moth-like to the luminescence of those lovely yellow labels, but each time I step away it is one small act of love for my neighbours. Will you join me?



Adapted from my posts for Jubilee+ and Propel Sophia


6 Comments On This Topic
  1. Mark johnson
    on May 10th at 9:52 am

    Hi Jennie. I loved what you said and the way in which you described your experience. I too am a bargain bee, honing in on the yellow label and often feeling smug about it.

    What you have said will have me thinking again.

    Thank you!

    • Jennie Pollock
      on May 11th at 5:56 pm

      Thanks, Mark!

  2. Dad
    on May 10th at 11:06 am

    Hi Jen. I’d like to add something to the bit about the ‘wasted’ perfume. Jesus knew something the disciples didn’t know. He knew his funeral was going to be so rushed there would be no time for proper preparation of the body. It was to be a case of get the body and shove it in the tomb as fast as we can before the Passover begins. For that reason he said that she has done this to prepare my body for burial. Now that it not the sort of thing anyone would normally do! That is a very clear example of what you are saying about the Lord knowing what we can’t know. The disciples would have been left completely baffled. His explanation made no more sense than the act itself. Perhaps this is an example of ‘obedience is better than sacrifice’ (1 Samuel 15:22). You may baulk at making the sacrifice but it’s far better to obey – even if you you do not understand the instruction.

    • Jennie Pollock
      on May 11th at 5:57 pm

      Ooh, thanks Dad. Yes, really interesting. His reasons aren’t arbitrary, but always have purpose.

  3. John Stothers
    on May 24th at 10:05 am

    Thanks Jennie (sarcasm) now I get to feel guilty over, as my gourmet daughter calls it ” my poverty mindset” I hate wasting money. So buying say an already dear item at full price in Marksies that would break my no more than £3.00 a head rule would mean I would have to stop shopping there if I could not scour for the reductions. “Waste not want not” that’s my motto
    Bon appetite !

    • Jennie Pollock
      on May 24th at 10:38 am

      Ha! Thanks John! Yes, it’s the poverty mindset that has been a big thing for me. I still think I’m an impoverished student or missionary who needs the handouts and massive reductions, but I really don’t; I can leave them for those who really are in a season of poverty. For me it wasn’t so much ‘waste not want not’ as ‘Ah-ha! I can get more!’ God’s challenge to me was to switch from greed to generosity. No guilt trip intended, just an invitation to reflect on something you may never have thought of. Bon appetite indeed!


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