I’m fascinated by this issue because it’s perhaps the stupidest, most unnecessary problem we face as a society today.
In a world with massive global poverty and millions of people starving I always kind of assumed the reason is that there isn’t enough food. That people don’t have food because there’s a limited amount so only the people and nations who can afford to pay top dollar have it.
But it turns out that’s not really the case, we aren’t living with scarcity of food and in fact it’s quite the opposite. We have an abundance of food but it isn’t distributed properly. The UN estimates that nearly one third of all food intended for human consumption is wasted globally, if that food were recovered, we could end world hunger.
Yup, the solution to world hunger is basically sitting right under our noses and we’re throwing it into the trash.
So, where does all this food waste come from and how did we get here?
The majority of wasted food is lost at the level of consumers, according to the USDA it is estimated that an average American family of four throws away $1500 worth of food a year (U. S. Department of Agriculture). Why? Consumer culture, food packaged in massive quantities, and changing consumer preferences are all a part of the picture.
Consumer culture encourages us to always buy more and more, this pervasive societal influence is believed to be a main driver of the regular over purchasing that leads to consumers tossing so much of it away. Especially in the US, food is often packaged in massive quantities that are really only appropriate for families, or you have to buy a large quantity of food to get a discount. One supermarket in Finland has even banned volume based discounts in its stores in an effort to address this issue (Bergen). Additionally, consumers have increasingly raised their aesthetic standards for produce and have become less tolerant to produce that does not look perfect. This means only slightly over ripe, misshapen, or bruised produce that is perfectly edible is often discarded.
These aesthetic preferences from consumers also effects food waste at the earliest levels of food production, the farm. Farmers usually sell their produce direct to grocery chains or to middle man distributors who refuse to buy any produce that doesn’t meet strict aesthetic standards. Otherwise they just can’t sell it to consumers, we just won’t buy it. This pretty produce is referred to as “firsts” and the “seconds” are often left to decompose in the fields or thrown away directly. Farmers often don’t even pick second fruit, so this produce is not even routinely used in the production of goods such as fruit juice, fruit leather, or desserts where you don’t have to see the fruit.
This takes us to another massive source of food waste, the middle men like supermarkets, producers, and restaurants.
Most of us who’ve worked a job in any kind of food service have seen this waste first hand.
My first job in college was at the Central Food Facility or CFF. CFF has no windows ,you aren’t allowed to use cell phones, or play music, there was no interview to start and there’s about a hundred signs in bold font telling you not to take pictures.
One of our tasks was to machine slide bread, you’d drop bread rolls in one end of a machine and a combination of gravity and air pressure would push the bread past a wire to cut it at high speed. The bread would speed out of the chute at and often get dented against the stainless steel of the catchment area on the other end.
All dented bread was expected to be put in the compost. Even if it was just a slight dent the size of a thumb print. If you didn’t toss the bread your supervisor would make you re-sort everything and throw out the less than perfect rolls. Of course, we were not allowed to take any of the bread home either. Some of us inquired about getting the machine adjusted so we didn’t have to throw so much out but none of our superiors were interested in doing anything about it.
CFF employees had a running theory that the reason for the strict no photos policy was to prevent the secret of the massive food waste from getting out. There really wasn’t anything else to hide, the facility was clean, safety standards were more or less followed, and I highly doubt anyone was trying to steal our recipes.
I requested an interview with my university’s culinary services department to discuss food waste but was told no one was available, they sent me a list of statistics claiming that less than 1% of their food is wasted.
And the bread at CFF is just one example from my university, everyone who has worked in our dining halls will tell you that they throw away uneaten hot foods at the end of meal periods. You can even see them do it if you happen to walk by the trash when it happens.
Yet of course prep facilities and dining halls aren’t the only sources of middleman food waste. Supermarkets regularly over purchase food, just like consumers do. Another factor is that supermarkets abide by sell by dates listed on food by manufacturers.
In the US, only infant formula is required to have sell by dates on it. Dates found on meat and dairy are completely voluntarily applied by the manufacturers themselves, since companies don’t want to be liable if a consumer eats expired food these dates are overly conservative and entirely unregulated by the government. Even the official USDA website says most products are still good beyond sell by dates and recommends using your own senses to decide if food is bad.
However, it’s no surprise that sell by dates have little to do with food freshness because that was not their original purpose. Initially, sell by dates were just the day companies hoped to have an item sold by in order to track how quickly they were moving inventory. So, that’s why most food is still good on its sell by date, however misinformation has made consumers believe food past its sell by is bad so supermarkets cannot sell it.
Thus far, we’ve covered a myriad of the sources of food waste to unpack how it is we got to the point we are throwing out a third of the global food supply. But, what really is so bad about throwing away food? Sure, it’s obviously wasteful but are the side effects really so bad?
In short, yes. When food breaks down in landfill it releases methane, a green house gas that is 25 times more potent in its warming effect than carbon dioxide. When food is eaten as intended or broken down in a compost facility it gives off significantly less or no methane.
Additionally, there is simply too much trash in our landfills already. Food waste takes up more space and forces us to continue to expand the amount of land we are using simply to store trash, when the land could be better used to preserve nature and biodiversity or farm.
Plus, food is essentially stored energy. A lot of valuable resources go into creating food from water, energy to power farm machinery, human labor, and a notably large amount of fossil fuels used to get the food from place to place. When an apple is thrown away it isn’t just the apple that is being wasted, but all of the valuable resources that went into getting that apple to you.
If we are able to reduce our food waste we can reduce consumption of water and fossil fuels and reduce the amount of landfill space and farmland used for food.
But, how can we reduce our food waste?
There’s no one size fits all way to do so, but there are a lot of interesting social campaigns, businesses, and governmental policies out there that are doing just that.
Let’s start once again with consumers, since we are the largest source of food waste it also means individuals have a tremendous amount of power to do something about this problem. Really all you have to do is be more intentional with your shopping and stop over purchasing foods.
Pay attention to what you throw away, if your family never quite eats all the fruit in the house buy one less bag. Make sure you know what is in your house before you buy more food, and if you accidentally buy too much of something put it in your freezer and save it for later. These strategies are simple, common sense solutions that can both help the planet and your wallet.
Now, the middlemen, like supermarkets, what can they do? Markets all over the world have been getting creative, most notably and quite virally S Market in Finland. Everyday, an hour before close during “happy hour”, S Market stores put all food that will be past sell by at midnight on dramatic discounts of up to 80%. This move has been a hit with shoppers and helped the store improve profits by reducing their losses on wasted foods (Bergen).
Some businesses have even built their whole model around reducing food waste. Imperfect Foods is a subscription service that “rescues” good food that would otherwise be throw away for not meeting ndustry standards by selling and delivering it to consumers at reduced prices. Misfit Foods is a company that sources second produce directly from farmers and distributors and mixes it with meat to make unique half veggie half animal sausage products.
Another popular way for restaurants and supermarkets to put food waste to use is to donate it to charity. France has essentially codified this practice into law by making it illegal for supermarkets to throw away food, which shows us a great example of how legislature and policy can help solve this problem (Bryant).
Denmark has been the leading nation on the issue of food waste for the last decade. Combining food redistribution to the needy and a robust consumer education program that functions through social media the nation has reduced its food waste by 10% in just six years. Charities in Denmark now have a nearly endless supply of food to give out and average consumers have been able to save money shopping discounted foods near their expiry dates.
Danish inventors have even been able to help other nations reduce food waste from restaurants with the startup app Too Good To Go. This app helps restaurants sell food near expiry to consumers in a convenient online marketplace for big discounts, the app is now widely available throughout western Europe.
Everyone on this Earth has a good reason to want to stop food waste, average consumers can save money, the needy can get the food they need, and businesses can increase profits all while protecting the planet. We have many solutions at our finger tips and nothing to lose, now we just need to get out there and do something about it.
Note: This post is an edited version of a paper I originally wrote for class. I was also required to make a “genre revision” so if you enjoyed this post it also exists in podcast form on a post titled “Food Waste Podcast” on my site.