Food Waste: A Rampant Epidemic

Allison Aubrey, "It's Time to Get Serious About Reducing Food Waste, Feds Say", National Public Radio, Oct 8, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/09/16/440825159/its-time-to-get-serious-about-reducing-food-waste-feds-say.Allison Aubrey, "It's Time to Get Serious About Reducing Food Waste, Feds Say", National Public Radio, Oct 8, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/09/16/440825159/its-time-to-get-serious-about-reducing-food-waste-feds-say.

When I was in sixth grade, my grade went on a team (class) building retreat at a nature reserve in the suburbs of Baltimore. One of the major themes of the week was reducing “pesolet” – the Hebrew term for food waste. Among the activities that week was a competition, at the end of every meal and collectively at the end of the week, to see which group had the least amount of food waste. During that time, we were taught parodies of songs relating to food waste. I still remember the lyrics of the parody of “Teenager in Love”:

Each day I go to breakfast, put cereal in my bowl, pour out a glass of OJ, eat half my jelly roll. I can’t believe I took more than I ate, how did I leave so much pesolet on my plate?

As it turns out, leaving so much pesolet is not an uncommon phenomenon. According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Americans waste about 133 billion pounds of food each year, and he even puts it into Chicago specific context: “It’s enough to fill the Sears Tower 44 times.”[1]Allison Aubrey, “It’s Time to Get Serious About Reducing Food Waste, Feds Say”, National Public Radio, Oct 8, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/09/16/440825159/its-time-to-get-serious-about-reducing-food-waste-feds-say. On a manufacturing level, farms are largely to blame, as many farms don’t harvest food that isn’t “attractive” enough to sell. We, as consumers, let a lot of food go bad after we purchase it, because we often buy too much. Households waste 14% of their food purchases, or about $590 per year in meat, fruits, vegetables, and grain products [2]“Half of US Foods Go To Waste”, Food Production Daily, Nov 25, 2004,  http://www.foodproductiondaily.com/Supply-Chain/Half-of-US-food-goes-to-waste. Additionally, since many people don’t know what the sell by/best by dates on food mean, a lot of food is thrown out because we think it has gone bad. In fact, best by dates only suggest when the product is at its best, not when it becomes dangerous or inedible [3]Alexandra Sifferlin, “Food Expired? Don’t Be So Quick To Toss It”, CNN News, Sept 19, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/19/health/sell-by-dates-waste-food/..

This epidemic is so bad, that on average, a family of four wastes 1,160 pounds of uneaten food every year. Nationwide, that adds up to about 30% of our food, valuing $162 billion. Across the world, total food waste is estimated to equal 2.8 trillion pounds, or according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, enough to feed three billion people [4]Elizabeth Royte, “One-Third of Food is Lost or Wasted: What Can Be Done?”, National Geographic, Oct 13, 2014, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141013-food-waste-national-security-environment-science-ngfood/.. Restaurants and grocery stores tend to throw out their leftover food once it has gone bad, so if things are not purchased, they are more often than not wasted.

In addition to the actual food, 28% of the world’s agricultural area is used to produce food that is lost or wasted, the total volume of water to produce it is equal to three times the volume of Lake Geneva, and the resulting landfills are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the waste sector [5]“Food Wastage: Key Facts and Figures”, Food and Agriculture Organization, 2013, http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/196402/icode/..

In order to try and minimize the effects of food waste, the Environmental Protection Agency has created a Food Steward’s Pledge, where people pledge to reduce wasted food and hunger worldwide [6]“Take the Food Steward’s Pledge”, United States Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/communityhealth/forms/take-food-stewards-pledge.. Many schools and organizations are starting campaigns to reduce food waste, by educating people about food waste information and creating programs to help the food go to any sort of use. For example, the University of Southern Maine has an education program in place, as well as a donation program with a local farmer who uses the scraps to feed his pigs [7]Zachary Searles, “Food Waste on Campus: Eat What You Take”, The Free Press, Jan 25, 2016, http://usmfreepress.org/2016/01/25/food-waste-on-campus-eat-what-you-take/.. For waste by food sellers such as restaurants, grocery stores, and food companies, the Food Waste Reduction Alliance has been created, seeking to reduce food waste, increase donations of safe, nutritious food, and recycle any unavoidable food waste. The European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2012 to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2020 [8]Dana Gunders, “How America is Losing Up To 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill”, National Resource Defense Council, August 2012, https://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-ip.pdf. and the US followed suit, with the Department of Agriculture and the EPA calling for a 50% reduction by 2030 [9]“USDA and EPA Join with Private Sector, Charitable Organizations to Set Nation’s First Food Waste Reduction Goals”, United States Department of Agriculture, Sept 16, 2015, http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2015/09/0257.xml&navid=NEWS_RELEASE&navtype=RT&parentnav=LATEST_RELEASES&edeployment_action=retrievecontent.. Additionally, simply googling the phrase “food waste reduction” will bring up a number of blog posts, guidelines and “life hacks”, showing that even the average person is starting to consider their options on reducing waste, and getting the information out there.

Perhaps by then, the nature reserve I went to in sixth grade will no longer have to educate students about food waste and pesolet. By then, one hopes that it will be common knowledge.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Allison Aubrey, “It’s Time to Get Serious About Reducing Food Waste, Feds Say”, National Public Radio, Oct 8, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/09/16/440825159/its-time-to-get-serious-about-reducing-food-waste-feds-say.
2. “Half of US Foods Go To Waste”, Food Production Daily, Nov 25, 2004,  http://www.foodproductiondaily.com/Supply-Chain/Half-of-US-food-goes-to-waste.
3. Alexandra Sifferlin, “Food Expired? Don’t Be So Quick To Toss It”, CNN News, Sept 19, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/19/health/sell-by-dates-waste-food/.
4. Elizabeth Royte, “One-Third of Food is Lost or Wasted: What Can Be Done?”, National Geographic, Oct 13, 2014, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141013-food-waste-national-security-environment-science-ngfood/.
5. “Food Wastage: Key Facts and Figures”, Food and Agriculture Organization, 2013, http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/196402/icode/.
6. “Take the Food Steward’s Pledge”, United States Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/communityhealth/forms/take-food-stewards-pledge.
7. Zachary Searles, “Food Waste on Campus: Eat What You Take”, The Free Press, Jan 25, 2016, http://usmfreepress.org/2016/01/25/food-waste-on-campus-eat-what-you-take/.
8. Dana Gunders, “How America is Losing Up To 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill”, National Resource Defense Council, August 2012, https://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-ip.pdf.
9. “USDA and EPA Join with Private Sector, Charitable Organizations to Set Nation’s First Food Waste Reduction Goals”, United States Department of Agriculture, Sept 16, 2015, http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2015/09/0257.xml&navid=NEWS_RELEASE&navtype=RT&parentnav=LATEST_RELEASES&edeployment_action=retrievecontent.