Food and Food Waste

During a class discussion last semester on food I confronted my students with a staggering number:

About 40% of US food ends up in a garbage can! With that food we could make sure that NO ONE IN THE US would have to go hungry, or -if that is not incentive enough- we could feed the entire island of Haiti!

In fact the actual number is even higher, as it only focuses on the side of consumers and retailers, ignoring the waste that occurs on the level of production and transportation. How many leftover vegetables etc. are not picked up during harvest? How many fruits or vegetables don’t didn’t fit the producers idea in terms of size, shape etc.? How much waste is produced when shredding crooked carrots into baby carrots? And finally, how many products don’t find the market to maintain stable high prices?

Whatever the reason, it is clear that the actual number of food waste is actually higher than the 40% mentioned above.

Still the 40% of waste on the consumer side is staggering and I would like reflect a bit about what actually counts as waste and what that means for our society.

This is far from a theoretical exercise and instead should serve us to think a bit about our food ways and how they interrelate with our politics and our environment.

There are many ways of food being wasted, especially when we think in terms of health, efficiency, and environmental impact. For example, consumers choices are important: what do we eat/buy and what do we refuse to purchase?

Two things come immediately to mind: Expiration dates and meat production.

Of course, we don’t want to eat food that is bad. However, expiration dates do not signify that food has gone bad, yet at the same time many people are refusing to eat food passed its expiration date and opt instead of buying fresh food. The consequence of this is that much food doesn’t get sold or finds it way directly from the home refrigerator to the garbage can.

To be sure, composting is a good way of avoiding landfill. However, composting food is still wasting food that has been produced (it is like growing, selling, and buying bio-garbage).

So, how could meat production be seen as waste? There are many issues surrounding meat production that makes eating meat problematic –and I still do eat meat. Here I only want to focus on the fact that converting plant materials into food for animals to be eaten uses resources very inefficiently – from an ecological perspective. That combined with the amounts of meat consumed in the western world, adds environmental issues to the resulting health problems. We have all heard about the rainforest being chopped down for cattle ranching. Much less forest would have to be converted into agricultural land to produce the same amount of calories and nutrients.

There are of course other directly related consumer issues. How often have you thrown food away because it actually did go bad in your refrigerator? How often have you thrown away leftovers – instead of reheating the next day or using it in another dish?

Much of this of course relates to our relation to food and cooking these days. Most people rarely cook. As a result we don’t know any longer when food is bad  (hence we use the expiration date), and have little imagination of what to do with food we didn’t use in a meal. Purchases are less planned and we might go by days without looking into our vegetable drawer.

Similarly, with cooking becoming a special event only (or something that only involves the microwave), leftovers are more nuisance than food, converting perfectly good food stuff into garbage.

Finally, let me draw attention to another form of food waste. Western countries all face currently one big health challenge: obesity. With less and less activities, and temptations of food in every corner, the average American or European eats way more than needed to replenish their calories and maintain a healthy nutrition. This has not only adverse health effects, but also wastes food that is not otherwise available.

Obviously, we are talking both in terms of quantity (overeating), and kind of food (junk food).

All these issues not only create real problems in terms of waste (and we haven’t even talked food packaging!), but often also affect our health. They also tell the story about our estranged relation to food, cooking, and eating. Not that this will change soon, but hopefully we can become a bit more aware of what we eat, why, and how it affects the rest of the world.

Don’t shy away from eating, but try eating more consciously – thinking about what and how we eat is a good first step…



Norbert Ross