Food waste has been a pet peeve of mine for many years, and it appears that I am not alone! According to a recent survey, Americans feel guiltier about wasting food than any other environment-related (mis)behavior (e.g., wasting water, leaving on the lights, forgetting to bring reusable bags to the store).
The Food Waste Issue
As a member of the “clean plate club” since childhood, and a marketing professor interested in effective and efficient satisfaction of consumer needs, I am frustrated and saddened that about 40 percent of all food in the U.S. (and one-third globally) is discarded, uneaten — lost somewhere along the way from farm to store to home to plate to stomach. The environmental and economic impacts seem staggering, not to mention the dual tragedy of losing food that could have fed the hungry and needless slaughter of all that fish, poultry, and livestock.
Remember the huge salad on the buffet that no one touched because it didn’t fit on those tiny plates and no one wanted to risk having greenery stuck in their teeth? And the bruised peaches that we all pinched and rejected at the store while searching for the three perfect ones we put in our basket? Unless arrangements had been made to donate that food, it probably ended up in a dumpster. If not composted or rescued by a freegan, it journeyed on to the landfill, to produce methane instead of nourishment.
Two Books by Jonathan Bloom & Tristram Stuart and a New NRDC Report
At least two books have addressed the subject — American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half its Food by Jonathan Bloom, and Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal by Tristram Stuart. Now a new NRDC report (Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill) documents the key issues at every point in the supply chain and identifies potential remedies that will increase efficiency.
Food Network Special: “The Big Waste”
Perhaps the most compelling illustration of the nature and scope of food waste was a Food Network special, “The Big Waste,” aired in January 2012. Two teams of celebrity chefs were challenged to create a gourmet banquet using only food that was going to be discarded. Food rescued from farms, groceries, bakeries and butcher shops included eggs that were too large for the cartons, poultry with broken wings, and cosmetically imperfect produce. The resulting dinner dazzled the chefs and diners alike. Segments from the show are still accessible here.
Responsible Consumers Can Influence Change
As Raz Godelnik has noted, guilt alone may not motivate consumers to change their behavior, especially when balanced against modern families’ need for convenience, and the relatively low cost of food. I agree with Godelnik’s assertion that the problem cannot be solved without considering the larger problem of how Americans produce and consume food. But while lobbying for responsible actions by government, food companies, retailers, restaurants, and farmers (as recommended by the NRDC report and others), I feel that responsible consumers have the power to take the lead on this issue. Not only can we reduce our own food waste, but we can use our influence to drive cultural change — perhaps back to the days when our society cared more about it.
Take that Doggie Bag!
I confess that I personally gave up cooking when I realized I wasn’t reaching any hearts via their stomachs. While I am willing to slice, scoop, chop, pour, reheat, and arrange food on plates, my family has gratefully outsourced all other meal preparation to trained professionals in restaurants, delis, and takeout shops. So though I may be less involved with food preparation and waste prevention in the home (addressed so well by fellow Waste Watcher Jocelyn Deprez on this website), I am keenly aware of food waste in out-of-home situations.
When I’m involved with event planning, I always recommend ordering food that we know will be most popular with the guests, and in reasonable amounts. I forwarded the NRDC Report to the catering manager at our college, and plan to share it with others. I also try to be less wasteful when I dine out. If I know I’m not going to eat the potatoes that come with the entrée, or the scoop of beans that come with the salad, I am getting in the habit of asking that they be left off the plate. Doggie bags help ensure that the rest gets eaten (though perhaps we should bring our own containers to reduce packaging waste), and if there are a few slices of bread in the basket, I slip them in as well. I hope people realize that anything left on the table (or buffet), even if untouched, cannot be reused or served to anyone else and must be discarded.
So leave the gun, take the cannoli and the bread basket!
What strategies do you use to reduce food waste? Do you feel that we as consumers can or should be more vocal about this issue and try to bring about change in the system? What wasteful practices have you witnessed? What practical solutions can you share.