Why Food Waste Needs to Start Becoming a Priority
We waste food every single day. We forget containers in the back of our fridge, we don’t eat all the fruit and veggies we bought. We don’t feel like finishing the leftovers just because we want to eat something else. It has become common to throw food away or wait until it’s bad just because we simply forget about it.
What are the numbers?
The unfortunate truth is that 40 percent of food in the U.S. is not eaten.1 This equates to more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Thinking about the effort that was put into the production of this food makes this number even more shocking. Throwing away 40 percent of our food means throwing out $165 billion each year.2 But it is not only about money. Twenty-five percent of our freshwater is wasted for food production purposes, not to mention the waste of energy, land, and other resources.1
What are the reasons for food waste?
Fruit and vegetables are the most commonly wasted foods, followed by dairy, meat, and fish. The reason for waste can be found in every one of us. ‘A lack of awareness and undervaluing food'3 in our society has increased food waste. Food is available wherever and whenever we want it. Prices are low, which makes it even more tempting to buy more and forget about the leftovers in the fridge. Finishing what has already been bought before buying new food doesn’t seem to be of importance to a lot of people, which implicates a need for a shift in thinking and the core of the problem. We appear to be all about convenience and not really aware of what we already have. Instead of reheating the leftovers, we tend to buy new groceries and cook something new. Instead of taking the leftovers from a restaurant, we let it go to waste.
Many supermarkets offer sales such as 3 for $10 or buy one get one free. These offers tempt us to buy more than we actually need or buy food we would not typically choose. In this case, it appears to be more sensible to step away from those offers and ask yourself if this food is actually needed or if you are just buying it because of the promotion.
How to move away from this
Planning ahead cannot only save a lot of time and money but also a lot of food. In fact, thinking ahead and preparing a shopping list prior to making a trip to the supermarket will help you only purchase the food you need. In turn, we waste less as every ingredient is the component of a planned meal throughout the week. However, this leads to another common problem: over-preparation. When cooking, the trap of over-preparation is always there. An awareness of portion size can help to reduce leftovers. It is important to think of the amount of food that is needed to feed one person and adjust your cooking to better accommodate you and your family. There are easy ways to learn about portion sizes. Your hand can be a great measurement tool and you can learn more about how to do that here. One hand full of rice or oats make a great portion size.
Another great way to deal with leftovers is freezing. If there is more food than needed simply freeze some meals, fruits, or veggies to be able to save them for another day. If you are freezing a premade meal, it is a good idea to portion it out prior to freezing so that it is easy to reheat and eat when you are short on time.
Many of us don't realize that ‘sell by’ or ‘used by’ dates are not state-regulated. They are assumed by the manufacturers to ensure peak quality until opening or consuming. However, many foods remain safe to eat after this date has expired. For example, many dairy products are still good to eat after the expiration date. So before you throw something away just because it is one or two days past its date, check to see if it is still safe to eat. Read more about safely navigating expiration dates here.
Another factor of food waste is the fact that we as the consumer look for perfect food. We want straight cucumbers, carrots, and zucchinis. Apples should be shiny and without any flaws. All fruits and vegetables in the supermarket are placed to look as fresh and appetizing as possible. Even though food is a product made by nature, we want it to be perfect. However, perfection can never be reached. No one is perfect and the same goes for that cucumber. However, the taste and nutrition of a bent cucumber will the same as a straight one. If not even healthier as the farmers need a lot of chemicals to be able to grow those ‘perfect’ vegetables. Some supermarkets and online grocery stores have even started to feature only ‘ugly’ produce or discount the less visually appealing products, which is a great way to save a little money on your grocery shopping while helping to avoid that produce from being thrown away.
In order to help raise awareness, there have been many campaigns to ensure a more respectful interaction with food. ‘Save the Food’ raises awareness for food waste and aims to change the consumer’s behavior. The short movie ‘EXPIRED’ highlights the arbitrary choice of expiration dates on dairy products, especially milk. The United Kingdom and the European Union are researching the problem of the great amount of food waste and are trying to find the trigger in order to be able to decrease such waste and solve the problem. Moreover, McKinsey ranked food waste as one of the three most important matters to improve resource productivity.
How to take action
If you find you are throwing away a lot of food each week, there are plenty of better options than tossing it in the garbage. There are food pantries across the country where your leftover food is welcome. Food banks collect food from different sources and give it to those in via places such as soup kitchens, youth centers, and community pantries. Food rescue programs collect food and distribute it to charity to serve hungry people. Many of these programs also take donations from stores, restaurants, and individuals. Sometimes they even pick it up for free.
Now that you have all of this information, it is time to take action. Every one of us can have an impact on food waste, here are five steps to decrease your waste and shift to a more aware lifestyle, where food is valued and appreciated differently.
- Know what you need and what you already have. Be aware of what you have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. In order to waste less, plan ahead with the food you already have and work with those as ingredients for future meals. Simply buy any additional ingredients needed to complete a dish.
- Plan ahead. By planning ahead you can save a lot of time and money and also waste less food. In order to succeed it is important to map out recipes and meals for the week so you know what food to buy. Prepare a shopping list before going to the supermarket and stick to this list. Stay away from offers that make you buy more than you actually need and keep impulse purchases at a minimum, as they tend to increase your food waste.
- Food does not have to perfect. Especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables most of us are looking for perfect shapes and symmetries. However, even though a zucchini is not perfectly straight or an apple has a little blemish, it is still the same food and contains the same amount of vitamins and nutrients. Don’t primarily look for perfect food, the imperfect fruits and veggies are good too and may even save you a little bit of money.
- Expiration dates. Even though your milk has reached the expiration date or exceeded it, try it before you throw it out of your fridge. Most dairy products tend to last longer than the date says. Check its smell, color, and consistency (by pouring it into a glass) to make sure it is still good to consume. If everything seems alright, take a small sip to be 100 percent sure.
- Donate extra food. If you do all of this and still end up with spare food, donate it! There are different organizations nationwide that collect leftover food and give it to those in need. The Society of St. Andrew set up a hotline to provide information about the different agencies and organizations.
It is on all of us to change the amount of wasted food in the United States. Every one of us can have an impact on the amount of waste, which makes it easy to get started with even the smallest amount of effort. Keep the steps above in mind and try to be a little more conscious about your food consumption. Share and donate spare food or think of creative ways to reuse leftovers to make the world a little better and have a positive impact on your food waste.
1. K.D. Hall, J. Guo, M. Dore, C.C. Chow, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, “The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact,” PLoS ONE 4(11):e7940, 2009.
2. J. Buzby, and J. Hyman. “Total and per capita value of food loss in the United States”, Food Policy, 37(2012):561-570.
3. Gunders, Dana. "Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill." NDRC. Natural Resources Defense Council, 2012. Web.