Where the Food *Doesn't Go: Part 2
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
We produce far more food than we need. It's a shame that so much of it is never eaten.
You may not realize it, but the effects of food waste go far beyond what you can see. For one, roughly half of all fruits and vegetables and a third of all food is wasted annually. But despite that over 1.3 billion tons of food eventually land up in dumpsters, nearly 815 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment each year (“5 facts”; “2018 World Hunger and Poverty”). That’s more than double the population of the entire United States. Why is it that there’s enough food for everyone, yet so many people don’t get to eat?
Not only does food waste result in notable emissions of methane as crops rot in landfills, but it also means that all of the energy expended to grow it — all the trees cut down to harness arable land, all the water used to cultivate healthy crops, and even all the human labor involved in the entire process — is wasted too. Through some careful observation, I noticed that the reasons behind such exponential food waste, especially in developed countries, cannot solely be attributed to manufacturers and food banks. In fact, even people like us contribute slowly but surely to the rising piles of beets, barley, and bananas that populate our dumps. Today, I’m going to pose some questions about both sides of the coin: the flaws in food distribution on a commercial scale, and the flaws in our own usage of this food once it enters our kitchens. As individuals help feed the food wastage crisis in more ways than one, now’s as good a time as any to find out just how.
As mentioned in the first installment of this miniseries, there are certainly some messy complications that exist in the food transportation and distribution process. The times at which trucks leave warehouses or farms is often too late in the life cycle of many freshly-grown and manufactured goods, causing the food to already be rotten, spoiled, or expired by the time it reaches a grocery store or nonprofit. Even worse, much of the food that is transported in pristine condition fails to be purchased (when at grocery stores) or distributed quickly enough (when at food banks), and the surplus is almost always tossed directly into a garbage bin. The solutions? Transporting vehicles could prepone their departure from farms or factories in order to reach their destination ahead of time. Additionally, as international shipments generally take longer than local ones, a widespread shift to buying local would decrease the likelihood of food being spoiled upon arrival, while also strengthening local economies. Perhaps upon reaching grocers or nonprofits, the food itself could also be stored with greater care to increase its shelf life. While these possibilities all require both strategic thinking and innovators willing to implement this thinking, it’s through such advancements that we can greatly lessen the amount of food that is wasted before it even reaches people’s plates.
But what about once the food enters our very kitchens? What happens to it then? Well, I may just have an answer:
Every day, I see people throwing away perfectly good food even when there are others out there who are desperate for something to eat. And what better place to illustrate this than in a school? I’ve seen students grab a lunch tray in the cafeteria and pile it high with tater tots, chicken strips, and carrot sticks, only to simply drink the carton of orange juice in the corner of the tray and throw the rest of the untouched food away. That’s right. Untouched. I even see students who bring homemade lunches to school — lunches that their own parents worked hard to pack — and wrinkle their noses in disgust at the sight of something that they dislike. Rather than taking that food item back home for someone else in their household to eat, they just toss it in the overflowing cafeteria trash can in the hope that “now Mom will think I ate it.” To these students, I must ask why. Why fill your plate with food that you know you won’t eat? Why not bring a reusable container to school so that you can take the leftovers home? And are you really so afraid of your parents that you'd rather harm the environment than simply confront them?
School lunches are far too frequently thrown away rather than consumed or brought back home. (Credits to my classmates for these photos.)
I’ve witnessed a similar form of food wastage in ordinary households as well. Many people who are against the idea of leftovers throw away any extra food they have each day without second thought. Others, when hosting parties or other large gatherings, load serving bowls to the brim with pestos, pastas, and potatoes, only to trash the remnants in the bowl (often a large quantity) at the end of the night. While I understand that it’s unsanitary to save party food that’s kept in open containers for so long, I can’t help but wonder why hosts fill up such containers in the first place. Why not fill the serving dishes halfway and refill them once they empty out? Would you rather confine yourself to arbitrary party-hosting “rules” made up by absolutely no one at the cost of the environment, or set a novel example for your guests that keeps the planet in mind?
So what can we, as consumers at the bottom of the food supply chain, do to minimize food wastage? Well, we can start by only taking what we need. There’s nothing wrong with getting up to take a second helping of food; in fact, it far surpasses stuffing your plate with more food than you can handle and throwing the remains away. And when we do have more food than we know what to do with, we can bring the extras home (bonus points if you use a recycled container!) to eat for another meal. We can even freeze leftovers to extend their longevity, maintain a concise grocery list to avoid buying unnecessary items, and keep track of expiration dates to ensure that we finish certain items on time. And if we’re really feeling feisty, we can compost our scraps, whether they be sweet potato peels or carrot tops, thereby transforming even the inedible into a tasty treat for nature’s critters.
As Pope Francis once said, “Throwing away food is like stealing from the tables of those who are poor and hungry.” It’s an act of selfishness that keeps you standing at the expense of thousands of others. In a world in which there are people from every walk of life who don’t know where their next meal will come from, or if they’ll even get to eat again, tossing food should never even cross someone’s mind. Instead of taking advantage of food as something that will always be there for us, we should value it as a commodity that we’re lucky to have and share it for others to enjoy. In doing so, we can move one step closer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, overexploitation of valuable resources, and most importantly, empty stomachs.
“2018 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics.” Hunger Notes. World Hunger Education Service, https://www.worldhunger.org/world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/. Accessed 8 Sept. 2021.
“5 facts about food waste and hunger.” World Food Programme. World Food Programme, 2 June 2020, https://www.wfp.org/stories/5-facts-about-food-waste-and-hunger. Accessed 8 Sept. 2021.