Food waste is an enormous problem

Food waste is an enormous problem

When I was little, my grandmother and great aunt shared a rental house with our family. We lived on the first floor; they lived on the second floor.

Every Sunday we ate dinner with them, and often I was around when the meals were being prepared. Aside from the fact they were fabulous cooks, the one thing that amazed me was how they could reach into the refrigerator, pick out several seemingly unrelated items and in 30 minutes, viola, a wonderful dish. They never wasted food.

There is a new commercial on TV sponsored by Save the Food. It caught my attention immediately. Some of you may have seen it too. It shows strawberries growing in a field, being picked, being packaged, being shipped to a store, being purchased, being placed in a consumer’s refrigerator, and then after a week in that refrigerator, they rot and are thrown away. The message of the commercial: We need to stop wasting food.

Food waste is an enormous problem for our country as well as other nations, and consumers are not the only ones responsible for wasting food.

Food is wasted in the fields, in the packaging process, at grocery stores, in restaurants and ultimately in our homes. In fact, in the newly released book, “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming,” food waste is ranked third in importance from a list of 80 items that we need to act on in order to reverse climate change.

Food waste contributes 4.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide to our atmosphere each year. If food wastes were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, just behind China and the United States.

Rotting food in our landfills produces methane gas as it goes through anaerobic (without air) breakdown like a septic tank. The Environmental Protection Agency reported 34 percent of methane emissions come from landfills in the U.S. Remember, methane is 24 times worse than carbon dioxide when it comes to greenhouse effects.

We should all address food wastes, not only because of its contribution to climate change, but also because starvation is a moral issue. The World Health Organization reported 2.8 trillion pounds of food is wasted annually: enough to feed 3 billion hungry people. Generally speaking, the richer the nation, the higher per capita rate of food wastes.

Nearly one-third of the food raised never makes it from the farm or factory to our forks. In some cases produce is not harvested because of insect infestations or weather damage like flooding. If the market price for that item is lower than the costs to harvest and ship it to market, it is deemed more economic to just leave the crop in the field.

In California, in a 24-hour period, a food transfer station will landfill 10-20 truck loads of perfectly edible vegetables because they were improperly filled, labeled or sealed, according to the National Geographic article, “Future of Food.”

Cosmetics or ugly produce is a source of waste as imperfect food is rejected at harvest time or by the retail chain. We consumers have become used to having perfectly shaped fruits and vegetables, rejecting that lopsided apple or misshapen carrot. Those of us who eat organic or home-grown produce realize they often are not perfectly shaped or colored, but nutritionally they are great.

In undeveloped countries, food is wasted during transportation to markets, where access to adequate transportation and refrigeration is a major problem. It is reported 10-20 percent of Africa’s sub-Saharan grain is lost to mold, insects and rodents. This is enough food to feed 48 million people for a year. Lacking the ability to dry, can, bottle or pickle surplus food, it is simply left to rot.

For developed nations, food wastes often occur later on in the process. With adequate storage, transportation and refrigeration, food makes it to retail markets but often never makes it to our stomachs.

Restaurants serve portions too large to eat or offer elaborate buffets where customers help themselves to huge portions and end up throwing much of them away. American food retailers annually lose 22 million tons of food in their establishments.

As consumers we all share the guilt. I am trying to be more conscious of what I buy and what is in my refrigerator.

The average American family of four throws away $1,484 worth of edible food each year. Our annual wasted food totals $165 billion. According to Jonathan Bloom, author of "American Wasteland," Americans waste enough food in one day to fill the Rose Bowl Stadium.

Some useful advice from the article, “The Consequences of Food Waste,” in the journal, Inquiries: Don’t over-buy produce. Before you shop, make a list of what you need and take notice of what you have already. When placing perishable food in the refrigerator, keep it in a visible position, not in a bottom drawer to be forgotten until the smell of it rotting overcomes you.

Food labels are another issue that contribute to food being trashed. According to a survey by Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, 85 percent of consumers have thrown out food based on a date found on the package. Except for baby formula, there are no federal regulations on date labeling, and no two states have the same law.

The “best if used by,” “sell by” and “use by” designations are placed on the package by manufacturers and are simply their best guess as to “how long their food will taste its freshest.” The dates have nothing to do with food safety, according to the magazine, Consumer Reports. Milk that is fresh in one state at 21-24 days after pasteurization may not be considered fresh in another.

Consumers are advised to use their own judgment. You also can use the free app developed by the USDA called FoodKeeper. Food-borne illnesses come from food that has been contaminated with bacteria like listeria, not from food that is decaying via a natural process.

Considering homes top the charts for food waste (43 percent) and restaurants and supermarkets are second (40 percent), we would be wise to reconsider pitching perfectly safe food or failing to eat our doggie bag leftovers. Consumers also can find cook books like “Amazing Waste,” which contain recipes specifically targeted to use over-ripe produce.

When I was working on my master's degree at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio, our school cafeteria had a sign at the beginning of the food displays. It read, “Take all that you want, but eat all that you take.” These certainly are words to live by.

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