Waste Less – Feed More, Part 1

This is part one of a multi-part series of posts discussing food waste in America.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently released a report detailing American food waste, which is up to 40% of all food in the farm to fork process. As a Grist article summarizing this report pointed out, this is like filling three grocery bags with your favorites foods, then dropping one as you walk through the parking lot — and instead of picking it up, shrugging and walking on.

According to the report, this is a 50% increase since 1970, and 10x as much waste as someone living in southeast Asia.

To be fair, a lot of this waste happens before food ever reaches your home. (The report focuses on produce, rather than other types of food like meat and dairy and I’ll speak to those in another post). There’s waste on the farm — farmers plant too much, or not enough grows to warrant harvesting. Harvesters are trained to only pick produce that meets certain criteria. And then, as it enters the production process, more of the product is culled for various reasons. Product is lost to improper storage & handling. There’s loss during the packaging process, and in the distribution process.

According to the NRDC, some industrial tomato packing facilities can fill a truck with 22,000 pounds of waste tomato…every 40 minutes!

Think, for instance, about the way eggs are packaged and how often you find cracked eggs in the carton — and how seldom you buy the other eggs in the carton because of that. Think about how you can sometimes see milk leaking from a milk tanker driving down the road, or the way delicate produce can’t travel very far without being damaged. Think about how much of a carrot is lost if it’s made into a baby carrot (a process that’s completed by shaving down a carrot that’s not “properly shaped” for retailers to buy them). Grocery stores over-buy so that they can create the appearance of abundance, and many stores don’t mark down the food to encourage people to buy it if the food is close to it’s expiration date (though this can just pass the waste along to the consumer, it can also encourage people who are truly looking for a deal on food they expect to eat to buy the produce — a lot of the food co-ops, and other produce-heavy grocery stores I’ve shopped at over the years offer pre-bagged produce that’s bruised or about to go bad for steep discounts — $0.49-1.99 for the whole bag).

But in general, at the grocery store, most of us look for pretty produce, for eggs that don’t even have a hairline fracture (there are health concerns associated with this, after all), for food with a long expiration date. If we’re buying convenience foods, or ready-to-eat foods, we want those foods to look beautiful also and we want the same options if we’re coming at lunchtime as we do if we come 15 minutes before closing. So while ready-to-eat foods at the deli counter in the grocery store might mean* the store gets to use over-ripe produce or short-dated meat/dairy, it can also mean a lot of waste at the end of the day if the store has tried to keep this display full until close.

Restaurants serve large portions, and a good deal of this goes uneaten. Restaurants also oftne maintain large menus, which means they must keep more food in stock so they can prepare this food, and with few exceptions restaurants (and dining halls) don’t have a way of really tracking food consumption patterns — according to the report there is a software that will help with this task. But in the meantime, until such tracking is implemented, large menus lead to more waste.

More than half of leftovers aren’t taken home. Buffets throw away a ridiculous amount of food that cannot be served again or donated to health code regulations (and let’s face it, who really wants to think about all the people who have touched/sneezed/otherwise disturbed the food sitting on a warming tray or over ice at a buffet?) And all of these things happen before food even enter’s a consumer’s home.

So, let’s talk about that for a moment. It’s more tangible, for most of us. We can imagine composting (even if we don’t) our veggie scraps. We can envision keeping fowl or goats or pigs to eat kitchen scraps because these things are in the not-so-distant agricultural history of the United States. We can–and often know we should–buy only for a few days and make smaller portions (which means fewer leftovers). We can eat the leftovers we do have (including those two slices of pizza from the pizza joint themed after the Grateful Dead). As adults, we mostly have the freedom to buy what we want to buy. We could do this, with something that resembles meal planning, so we’re only buying what we’ll use. We can make sure we know proper storage for food, and additional ways to preserve food (freezing? canning? pickling? turning it into a sauce?) so it will last a little longer. So, why don’t we do more of these things?

Compost pile at a farm that specializes in rotational grazing practices

I think some of us are making conscious decisions to move in that direction. I know I am. I’m currently, consciously attempting to use down the grains and beans I’ve bought over the last few months. I’m consciously trying to find alternate ways to use the produce I get too much of in my CSA (and that’s mostly working out). I learned to can foods a few years ago, and frequently make sauces to stretch the life of produce. I’ve found a community garden that will compost for me, since I don’t have a place to compost. All I have to do is deliver my veggie scraps and coffee grounds. I’m making small changes. I could do more.

Doing more sometimes seems inconvenient. And for a long time, I let that be the excuse. I’m busy — over the past year, I’ve worked more than 40 hours a week almost every week. As I type this, I’ve worked every day for the past 30 days and there’s not really an end in sight. I also try to maintain some semblance of a life — that is, doing things for me or that interest me.

But here’s the thing: I can’t continue this pattern of only doing what’s convenient if I care about the earth, and my future. And I do care about the earth, and my future. And I care that we’re wasting this much food in a country where 1 in 6 people report not having enough money for food**. 1 in 6. That’s a hell of a lot of people. I can’t continue to use inconvenience as an excuse if food prices go up the way they’re expected to rise over the next couple of months (to say nothing of the next year or two) in response to the drought conditions in the United States — especially since a full 25% of our fresh water goes to agriculture. There are a lot of reasons I can’t use inconvenience as an excuse. I’ll get to some of those in other posts in this series of Waste Less – Feed More.

The next post in this series will focus on food recovery projects.


*At the food co-op for which I was a Director of the Board, the bakery & deli departments kept separate orders from the grocery department, meat, dairy, and produce departments. The food that was wasted in these departments was (frequently) either thrown out or composted.

**This is based on a Gallup poll; it doesn’t account for what other things people might be spending their money on. However, this is also a country where the number of people living with friends, family, or other nonrelatives (“doubled up” is the term the National Alliance to End Homelessness uses) has increased 13% between between 2009 and 2011 (and 50% since 2005), and where 21 out of ever 10,000 people (as of January 2011) is homeless. That’s throughout the country — in some areas, the number is much higher. You can also read a reference for the 1:6 figure the NRDC gives at source 11 in the footnotes.


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