Take a bite out of food waste

Food waste

Food waste

Does food waste bother you?

I have seen estimates that between 30-40% of the food grown in this country never reaches the table.

Once it does, food waste comprises the largest component of municipal solid waste, and consumers generate as much as half of it.

It’s a long journey from farm to table. Not everything planted will grow. Not everything grown will reach harvest because of weather and other problems. Not everything harvested will reach grocery stores, food processors, restaurants, and other destinations before it rots.

None of these losses, serious as they are, count as food waste.

The US Department of Agriculture and the EPA have recently announced plans to set national food waste reduction goals. The government will define them in cooperation with various aspects of the food industry and charitable organizations.

According to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack,

An average family of four leaves more than two million calories, worth nearly $1500, uneaten each year. Our new reduction goal demonstrates America’s leadership on a global level in in getting wholesome food to people who need it, protecting our natural resources, cutting environmental pollution and promoting innovative approaches for reducing food loss and waste.

Measuring food waste

Food waste is not an American problem. It is an international problem, and the press release just cited was issued a week before a UN conference on sustainable development goals.

We can only manage what we measure. The World Resource Institute and other NGOs are developing a protocol to enable practical and internationally consistent measurement and reporting of food waste. Once a country or company can identify the amount of food wasted and where the waste occurs, it will be possible to devise targeted plans to reduce it.

Easier said than done.

The restaurant industry demonstrates one aspect of the problem.

In fast-paced restaurant kitchens, managers haven’t wanted to take time to measure the amount of food that goes into the trash.

Winnow, a British startup, has devised a computer app and smart meter that can measure it within the pace at which commercial kitchens operate. As kitchen staff throw food into a trash bin, they can use a touch screen to identify what they discarded. The meter automatically records the weight and cost.

We as consumers also can’t know how much food we waste at home until we take the time to measure it. Here’s a simple way: Set a container on a scale and set the scale to zero. When clearing the table, scrape all of the uneaten food into it.

Add food that spoils before you can eat it to the container, whether rotten produce or moldy leftovers. Do not include bones, peelings, egg shells, or other inedible wastes. Weight it and keep a record of it.

Eventually the exercise will give you an idea of what you’re wasting, how much, how to reduce it.

Corporate responsibility for food waste

Food waste rescued from dumpster

Food rescued from a dumpster

Food waste encompasses all kinds of food, but to keep this post to a reasonable length, I will concentrate mostly on produce.

Much of the food waste at the corporate end comes from two basic directions.

Stores, canneries, potato chip manufacturers and the like reject shipments of produce for cosmetic reasons. It’s too large or too small. It’s an odd shape, or otherwise doesn’t look right.

Manufacturers will reject it because their equipment or production process can’t handle the variation. Groceries will reject it because they believe their customers won’t buy ugly-looking food.

Canned goods and other packaged foods come with a sell-by date. When the date passes, the food is still wholesome and nutritious, but the stores pull it from the shelves.

Restaurant portions have become larger than a person ought to eat at one sitting. Diners have three choices: eat it anyway and grow to an unhealthy weight, ask for a take-home package (impractical for customers who are traveling), or just leave food on the plate.

Plate waste accounts for only part of restaurants’ contribution to the problem. You order a hamburger with lettuce and tomato only and it comes with mustard and pickles and all the other stuff you don’t want? It’s wasted.

Someone in the kitchen makes one of any of a number of possible mistakes? Perhaps the presentation on the plate is wrong. Perhaps by the end of the day the restaurant hasn’t sold everything it prepared. In any case, food is wasted.

The simplest solution to all kinds of food waste is to throw it in the dumpster for a trip to the landfill. Meanwhile, there may be people living nearby who will go hungry that day.

As noted earlier, the first step in cutting down on waste is to measure it and plan how to reduce it. But rejected produce and unserved restaurant food ought not go to the landfill. People should eat it.

Some solutions to commercial food waste

First, donate rejected produce and other good food to the poor. The Society of St. Andrew, among other other agencies that provide food for the poor, operates a number of gleaning and food rescue programs.

It does not purchase food; it solicits donations. When a manufacturer or warehouse rejects a load of produce because it’s beneath the cosmetic standards of the food industry, the Society receives it and delivers it to nearby food pantries, soup kitchens, and other hunger agencies.

Rub & Stub, a restaurant in Copenhagen, serves donations from supermarket and otherwise food essentially rescued from trash. Portions are small, but if guests are still hungry, the restaurant offers free seconds.

Second, change procedures to reduce or eliminate waste. After more than a decade in the restaurant business, Chicago’s Justin Vrany lost patience with the food waste he saw. He says restaurants typically waste eight gallons of food, packaging, paper, and miscellaneous trash per hour.

He opened Sandwich Me In with the intention of sending no waste to the landfill. It has produced eight gallons of trash in two and a half years.

Chicago does not offer municipal composting or even recycle all the other waste Sandwich Me In produces, so Vrany takes it all home with him. He composts the food and paper and finds ways of recycling most of the rest.

The eight gallons of trash he couldn’t take care of? He gave it to an artist to use in a sculpture. It did not go to the landfill.

Third, stop rejecting produce and sell it. Jordan Figueiredo and food author Stephanie Sacks are circulating a petition asking Walmart and Whole Foods to sell produce that does not meet ordinary aesthetic standards. Of course, they would have to adopt new procedures and new corporate culture. People have to be willing to buy it, perhaps at a lower price. There are bound to be unintended consequences.

Consumer education for food waste

Stop food waste nowIf every part of the food industry adopted these or other waste elimination techniques and had them fully implemented starting tomorrow, it would solve only half or less of the food waste problem.

That’s because individual households produce half or more of all food waste.

Collectively we buy more fresh foods than we can eat before they spoil. We open cans or jars and let them mold before we finish them. Some people refuse to eat leftovers.

So if someone in such a household makes a recipe that feeds eight for a family of four, half of it goes in the trash. Other people intend to eat leftovers, but never get around to it before they spoil.

In fact, people in the food industry from CEOs to high school students at a fast food counter waste so much food simply because they grew up like all the rest of us, wasting food at home.

The worst part of food waste is that most people have no idea of the scope of the problem. It just doesn’t seem like a big deal. I have seen a poll that found three fourths of us consider ourselves less wasteful than the average person. So at least one fourth of us have no idea that we actually waste more than the average person.

The recent USDA/EPA press release mentions plans to educate the public. We need to be educated. And fortunately educational initiatives come from other organizations besides the government.

My church, along with others, recently took part in one of the Society for St. Andrew’s Produce Drops. The society usually donates the food it collects directly to the agencies that will use it, but it it sets aside some of it for Produce Drops in order to involve the public.

They empty one dump truck load of food (36,000 pounds) in a church parking lot or other location. In our case it was sweet potatoes, a mound maybe 4′ high and 10-12′ in diameter.

Volunteers spent a morning putting them into approximately 10-pound bags and loaded them onto pickup trucks. Volunteer drivers then took them to food banks and other agencies, most of them too small to receive entire loads from the Society.

I haven’t been able to find any estimate of how many truckloads of edible produce go to landfills. The USDA/EPA news release estimated food waste at 133 billion pounds annually.

Certainly not all of it is rejected produce. Suppose 20% of it is. That’s about 27 billion pounds. In that case, if one dump truck load is 36,000 pounds, 750,000 times more than the little bit dumped in the church parking lot goes to landfills.

Benefits of reducing food waste

Dumpster diver rescuing food waste

Dumpster diver

Reducing food waste mitigates the human contribution to climate change. If food wasted worldwide were a country, it would produce more methane and other greenhouse gases than any other country in the world excepting only the US and China.

Reducing food waste saves money.

The costs of food waste include the value of the food plus the value of the time and energy to grow and transport it, handle it in warehouses, prepare it, haul it to the landfill or incinerator, and operate the landfill or incinerator.

How many better uses do you suppose we could find for that money?

I close with the single example of feeding poor people who are food insecure. People with inadequate access to food have above average health problems, particularly more emergency room visits. Hungry people can’t work as efficiently, and hungry children have more trouble studying and learning.

Being poor is expensive!  In addition to direct costs to the poor of health care, lost earnings, and the like, everyone else pays for food insecurity in higher taxes.

A 15% reduction in food loss in the US would provide the food needs for 25 million Americans and sharply reduce food insecurity. Worldwide, even smaller reductions would have an enormous impact.

Environmentalists have falsely claimed for decades that the world can’t produce enough food to feed people without severe measures to reduce population growth. But the food supply chain worldwide wastes or loses $750 billion worth of food every year.

As little as a 1% decrease in post-harvest losses in Sub-Saharan Africa would give the area $40 million in economic gains, most of it going into the pocket of smallholder farmers.

As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said, “Let’s feed people, not landfills.”

News release: USDA and EPA Join with Private Sector, Charitable Organizations to Set Nation’s First Food Waste Reduction Goals (September 16, 2015)
Global food waste on the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda / Jeff Strasburg-McIntire (Sustainablog, September 28, 2015)

Photo credits:
Food waste. Some rights reserved by Nick Saltmarsh.
Food rescued from a dumpster. Photo by Quispiam. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Stop Hunger Now logo. Photo by Khalid Aziz. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Dumpster diver. Photo by Khalid Aziz. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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