Why Does It Matter?
There are two main issues augmented by food waste: environmental degradation and hunger.
In the U.S., we can produce a cornucopia of food, but not without cost. Agriculture involves clearing land (contributing to deforestation and destruction of biodiversity), use of water (contributing to 80% of water usage – sometimes depleting water reserves), fertilization (which can often lead to acidification and pollution), and harvest/transportation (a journey that’s typically 15,000 miles). Of course, agriculture is completely necessary, but there’s a question of whether or not all of our risky activity is being properly placed.
Despite the great effort that we put into agriculture, we still have a national hunger problem. 42 million (about 1 out of every 8) Americans (13 million of which are children, 5+ million of which are seniors) face food insecurity.
Yet, Americans toss away around 40% of the environment-taxing food we produce. This is the problem with food waste; our current food system leaves people underfed while creating almost twice as much stress on the environment as necessary.
Why Does It Happen?
The solution seems just as simple as the problem is ridiculous: stop throwing away the food we make and put it to good use. In spite of the simplicity of the solution, the problem remains. What reasons do producers and consumers have for continuing to toss massive amounts of precious food?
In the Industry
Businesses (farmers, distributors, and stores) often waste because there’s a lack of profit to be made from the items they throw away. It’s common for farmers to throw away ‘ugly’ produce before it even leaves the field because the farmers know it won’t sell. Distributors and stores may feel the same. Stores may be especially picky about the cosmetics of the items or nearness of ‘best-by’ dates – dates which generally indicate how quality a food item is, not how edible it is (learn more here). When food is leftover, it’s often cheaper for business to throw it away than to distribute it to those in need.
The problems that businesses have can be reduced by consumers accepting non-perfect produce, knowing more about food spoilage and best-by dates, and by creating opportunities for business to cheaply distribute leftovers (like these groups have done).
Our waste, as consumers, is normally pure waste – good food that not used, but thrown in the garbage. Percentage-wise, more waste is caused by consumers than any other single step in the timeline of food production. The NRDC estimates that $1,350 – $2,275 worth of consumer-purchased food is tossed each year. That’s almost the amount of a semester’s tuition at GSU simply put out in the bin.
If you’re think that this huge amount of waste doesn’t apply to you since you’re careful about your food waste, you might be mistaken. Studies done by Johns Hopkins and Ohio State showed that most people (70-85%) thought they wasted less than others (even if that wasn’t the case).
If it costs us so much, why are we wasting it?
We’re busy. We don’t plan our meals, we hurriedly buy food that we may not eat, and we sometimes forget about foods we’ve already purchased.
We don’t value food enough after we buy it. A study showed that people would feel more upset about dropping a carton of eggs than if the eggs went bad after being forgotten in the fridge.
In the end, it’s all a matter of habit. We toss out leftovers we don’t want to eat, we place things in the back of the fridge or pantry until we’ve forgotten about them, we fail to make tasty dishes with our food (so we toss the dish rather than suffer the misfortune of our own cooking), or sometimes we simply decide we don’t want the food we’ve purchase.
How Can We Stop It?
While we can’t directly change the actions of businesses, we can certainly encourage it. Buy ugly produce. Voice your concerns to your local grocer. Create (or support a pre-existing) food recovery service. Basically, make it worth it for the food industry to reduce it’s waste.
As individuals we can be sure to plan our meals and only buy what we need. Furthermore, we can make sure we use what we buy. There’s tons of ways to use food that we would usually toss: composting leftovers for a personal garden (even in an apartment), making a garden out of food leftovers, or using waste-reducing recipes.
We’ve drawn from multiple sources to write this article. If you’d like to use our sources as leads, go ahead! Here is everything we referenced in this article (minus what’s already linked throughout the article):
U.S. Food Insecurity:
Personal Food Waste
‘Best-By’ Dates and Food Spoilage:
Be Well, Do Well!
– University Wellness Program