Where does food come from, where does food go?
“Waste not, want not.” Nearly everyone has a memory of a parent scolding them with this line, or something related. Despite being trained from a young age to avoid waste, researchers speculate that as much as 40% of all food in the United States is wasted, from household garbage to commercial kitchen trimmings. Food waste is a massive problem in the United States, as it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and environmental pollution. Additionally, many households spend hundreds of dollars per month purchasing meals that will only find their way into the weekly refrigerator cleanout. This wasted food could be better used elsewhere — namely, in the refrigerators and bellies of hungry families — but it instead finds itself in a landfill, using up precariously finite resources in the process of their disposal.
In the United States, food waste is primarily monitored by a partnership of three agencies: the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agencies made a goal in 2015 to cut waste by 50% by the year 2030, with three significant branches to the movement. The most obvious is environmental, as less food waste will lead to less methane from landfills and more nutrients in the ecological cycle (not to mention the single-use plastics employed by so many prepackaged food manufacturers). Another benefit is financial. If you buy only the food you need, you’d be surprised by how much money you save at grocery stores and restaurants — don’t forget that 40% figure. Finally, there is the community improvement benefit: unused food can be donated instead of tossed, helping families and individuals in need.
The agencies came together to create the Food Recovery Hierarchy , determining the ideal strategies to mitigate food waste. The most preferred method, source reduction, sounds the easiest at face value: stop producing excess food that will not be eaten. However, a complicated web of supply and demand, government subsidies, and steep competition among small farms makes this step much more difficult than it needs to be. The U.S. has gotten used to a very instant-gratification method of grocery shopping, expecting much produce to be available year-round. With major grocery stores always flush with every product imaginable, of course plenty of it will spoil before hitting anyone’s dinner table.
Second preferred on the hierarchy is to feed hungry people. Excess and surplus food should be donated to families and individuals in need by way of soup kitchens and shelters, rather than tossed. There exists enough resources to feed all hungry people, yet each year millions of people go hungry while over a billion tons of food is wasted (40 million of those tons coming from the United States alone). After feeding people comes feeding animals, another way to return the nutrients of wasted food into the ecological cycle.
One of the more technologically innovative uses for food waste is industrial, such as production of biofuels. We all have heard of the “french fry car,” powered by excess McDonald’s fry oil. Biofuels are a (mostly) renewable source of energy and must better alternative to non-renewable resources such as natural gas and oil. And don’t worry, not all biofuel-powered engines smell like a McDonald’s kitchen.
However, most of us regular people are not equipped to produce biofuels with our kitchen scraps. However, we can still do something better than trashing them to return nutrients to their natural cycle: compost. Get yourself a plastic tub, drill some holes, and start it with a good layer of soil. After adding scraps, mix it regularly, and by the next planting season, you’ll have rich, moist, beautiful soil. Furthermore, plenty of services exist for the yard-less among us to have scraps picked up weekly and composted in a more suitable environment.
A major contributor to waste is expiration dates at grocery stores, cafeterias, and any other locations where packaged food is sold. Expiration dating is by no means an exact science. Most mass-produced, packaged products are stamped with semi-arbitrary numbers that roughly correlate with the time the manufacturer considers the food to be lower quality. As consumers, we should trust our intuition. We can tell when food is truly spoiled, whether it’s by the smell, color, or texture, and we shouldn’t be so reliant upon what the company producing it claims. Major packaged food manufacturers probably would prefer you purchase a new jar of ketchup, rather than continue using a jar one week past “expiration.”
Often, the abstract concept of “food expiration” prevents stores and cafes from re-homing packaged food to hungry people. However, contrary to popular belief, “use-by” or other forms of expiration dating are not required by the FDA; in fact, the agency has been working to normalize replacing expiration with the phrase best if used by in order to highlight food quality, not food safety (the one exception is infant formula, and manufacturers must determine the last date by which it contains all advertised nutrients).
Restaurants (and by extension, consumers at restaurants) can also play a major role in lessening food waste with one big step: smaller portions. Perhaps the largest obstacle in the way of this, however, is guest satisfaction. Guests feel as though their meal is worth what they’re paying for if they receive a plate heaping with food, even if they know they will not finish it. Still, they doggie-bag their leftovers, bringing their meal home to the back of the refrigerator, to be forgotten until it starts to smell funny.
In our home kitchens we can also work to reduce wastefulness. Repurpose your scraps into stocks, stir-frys, and salad dressings. Adopt a first-in, first-out (FIFO) approach to the ingredients in your fridge, and try to limit impulse purchases of highly perishable foods such as milk and produce. And seriously, stop going to the grocery store hungry, because you will just buy way more than you need.
Food waste can often be disregarded by the public because it is difficult to see the effects of it firsthand. Consumers are shielded from waste, from the beginning production to the tableside end, and are therefore left unaware of how their habits are contributing to this epidemic of wastefulness. While the onus is not entirely on individuals to overhaul the entire structure of wasted food in this country, our spending habits at grocery stores and restaurants can alter the supply chain of these businesses, eventually leading back to the manufacturers and farms that generate food. But if you still are not sold on the beauty of a food-waste-free future, just think of the beautiful compost-fueled gardens, delicious soups made from scratch, and demonstrable financial savings that all can be achieved with a little more thought put into our consumption habits.