Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A contrarian view of food waste

It's summer, and here in the verdant rolling hills of Lancaster County where our farms boast the most fertile non-irrigated soil in the nation, thoughts are turning to food waste.  The general consensus:  food waste is terrible.

I'd like to take a contrarian view.  I think that many supposedly-frugal people make much too big a deal of food waste, and that letting food rot isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Not necessarily a bad thing -- but bear with me, here.

It's true that my family doesn't throw away much food.  The food we toss tends to be plant matter -- apple cores, vegetable peels, coffee grounds, the occasional wilted green.  It all goes into the compost bin, where it rots -- just like all the other 146 billion tons of biomass produced each year in the natural world.  When we pull dandelions from our yard, we don't say "dang, we're wasting food!" (even though dandelion greens are edible).   A head of lettuce or a stalk of broccoli doesn't magically become some kind of sacred object merely because it got to spend some time in our fridge.

I'll even go so far as to say the same for meat; animals die in the natural world all the time without being eaten by people.  When I drive by a deer killed at the edge of a highway, I don't think, "man, there goes more wasted food".   Why should I single out a chicken for special "wasted food" status more than, say, a wild duck that met its maker in some fowl accident?

No, when we complain about food waste, the problem is not with the food itself.  In this case, food is a proxy measure for other things that we ought to be paying attention to.  Food is easy to see and measure, just like a child's height is easy for a doctor to measure.  Short kids and tall kids can both be healthy, but a doctor keeps track of a child's height as a proxy for catching problems that might be harder to detect.  In the same way, wasting food tells us that there might be other problems we're facing we need to be aware of.

Let's look at three arguments that people give for not wasting food:  each of these points at a problem that might or might not be fixed by eating that yogurt before it starts sporting those blue fuzzy warts.

1.  People all over the world are starving.
I'm a bit partial to this sentiment, especially considering there's a child we're hoping to adopt from Haiti who has lived through many hungry times himself.  But as any 5-year-old can tell you, you won't feed the hungry people of Haiti (or even of your own city) by shipping a few of your leftovers off to them, nor even by eating less food yourself.

The problem of world hunger is not caused by how much food you buy at the grocery store.  According to Oxfam,
Famine is the “triple failure” of (1) [local] food production, (2) people’s ability to access food and, finally and most crucially (3) in the political response by governments and international donors. Crop failure and poverty leave people vulnerable to starvation – but famine only occurs with political failure. 
In other words, the best way to feed people across the world (or even in your own community) is to donate to or work with organizations that can help to deliver food into the right hands.  Emergency aid helps a lot, and so does help establishing a stable and local food infrastructure.  Advocating for your colleges, restaurants, and groceries to donate excess food to food banks would be a huge help.  Eating those last few bites of cheese before it gets hard, not so much.

2.  Growing, transporting, and selling food takes up vast amounts of our planet's resources.
I agree.  A lot.  In fact, if you want a picture of what I call "waste", look at this:
(How many different ingredients does it take to
make this plastic-encased cake "unmistakably fresh"?)
 or this:
(Organic apples in a bag that will out-last my great grand children).

Even though we ate all the cake, and even though we ate all the apples (well, not the cores), to me THAT is the true picture of food waste.  So much of the food we buy comes wrapped in trash, and we think that's normal.  And the trash that our food comes in isn't even remotely biodegradable; unlike the food that it once covered, it'll be around moldering (but not composting) in landfills for millennia.  THAT is DISGUSTING.  

I'll say that again.  The food we don't eat but put back in the ground turns into dirt that can grow new plants that can feed our world again someday.  Plastic bags and foil wrappers are a one-way trip from "resource" to "garbage".   And that is a true waste, in every sense of the word.

Of course, there are hidden pictures of waste that go with every foil wrapper, plastic bag, and plastic-and-foil-lined-cardboard-juice-container.  Even if we can't see it, we all know about the waste of fuel and fertilizer used in growing and transporting all that food.

The solution to this waste is only partly to consume less food.  The solution, for any ecologically concerned person, also includes trying wherever possible and reasonable to purchase locally grown foods in season.  It involves learning to preserve food (or possibly finding local people who can preserve food for/with you).  It includes choosing foods that are less energy- and ecologically-intensive (such as avoiding processed foods; also possibly increasing the number of plant-based dishes you cook and moving toward meatless or less-meat meals).

The solution also involves paying attention to packaging.  Sometimes, it involves buying in bulk to reduce packaging.  For even more careful people, it means avoiding packaging whenever possible.  Over the years, we've learned places where we can buy milk in glass bottles that we return to the dairy for a refill; our market reuses egg cartons and yogurt containers.  I'm far, far from perfect . . . but I'm proud that as of June 19, our family has put out only 8 trash cans so far this year.

In my eyes, a person in Pennsylvania who buys two bushels of local, organically grown tomatoes in August (using her own buckets as storage containers) and then lets the whole lot rot on the ground . . . that person has created less waste than if she ate every last chunk from a tropical fruit platter encased in plastic and shipped from half-way around the world in January.

3.  Food waste means wasted money.
Okay, now you're talking.  Systematic food waste points to a kind of inefficiency that I really do get twitchy and unhappy about, even though (unlike the two other problems above) it is a problem that affects only the household that's tossing the food.

There are a gazillion techniques for making sure we don't let food go bad, and therefore don't have to make trips to the grocery for even more costly food.  (Here's a particularly pithy set of ideas).  I'll add one technique I haven't seen much elsewhere:
Practice running out of food.  And then, make running out of food part of your normal practice.
Actually, I don't mean running out of all your food -- one of my American-born sons lived through days of food insecurity when he was small, and it still haunts him.  But it's okay to run out of "Easily Spoilable Food A", and then switch to "Long Shelf-Life Food B" until the next grocery run.  For example, I buy a half-gallon of milk each Tuesday, and my kids all know that when that runs out, they switch to water until next Tuesday.  [And if you're worried about their calcium intake, I'll point to the three heads of kale they eat in one sitting, plus all the other leafy green things that scramble into our home from the nearby farms.]  Similarly, when school is out for the summer, I buy a bit of sandwich meat and cheese which goes down early in the week; then we switch to peanut butter or hummus we make from our vast stock of dried beans.

Other ways I make efficient use of food in our home:

Turning old food into new food
The pantry principal
How not to go shopping
My weight in vegetables with no plastic

But these cute little ideas for how to manage the food already in our house, they miss the bigger point.  The takeaway message is this:
Food waste is so bad, but not because of the food.   So the solution to food waste might start by thinking about what's already in our own refrigerators and pantries, but it can't stop there.


  1. "When I drive by a deer killed at the edge of a highway, I don't think, "man, there goes more wasted food". "

    I do... but I really really like venison, and you can't buy it in stores or restaurants here anymore because of mad deer disease or whatever.

    1. Next time I pass a dead deer, I'll think of you! And if it's still fresh, I'll put it in clear containers . . . -MM

    2. Luckily my FIL is a hunter and my MIL hates game. So once or twice a year we get some of his bounty if we visit.

      I think, sadly, there are laws against picking up road-kill deer for human consumption. Especially when they're not in season!