Waste Not, Want Not: The Growing Problem of Food Waste

If you embrace green living for your family, you likely know the importance of eating healthy, whole foods. But did you know that 40 percent of U.S. food is never eaten? In fact, much of it never becomes available to you and your children. Food waste has become an epidemic, with mass disposal happening at all stages of production and distribution. That’s quite a disgrace when 1 in 8 Americans are food-insecure. Worse, food waste increases our dependence on hyper-processed foods — which as we’ve often discussed on this blog, are full of toxic fillers and chemicals that are harmful to our children.

What causes the food waste epidemic and what does it entail? And what can we do to stop it? Read on for all the details.

Food manufacturers discard excess produce

Every sort of convenience food product, from frozen meals to breakfast bars to pre-made smoothies, requires (at least some) real food. It probably comes as no surprise that these products are made by machines rather than human cooks. But when a machine goes down, the entire assembly line is disrupted. Most food manufacturers simply divert ingredients into the trash rather than pausing production. In fact, stopping the machines would be even more wasteful. Because the machines take time to calibrate, the first few pallets don’t meet production standards and must be tossed.

Add the unavoidable food waste from new product development or switching the line to remove allergens, and food manufacturers definitely contribute to the tons of food sent to landfills every year. That’s an enormous drain on resources with a huge carbon footprint: all the fuel and electricity needed to grow and ship those ingredients is for nothing!

Could the ingredients tossed during production delays be salvaged and sent to grocery stores, restaurants, or food banks? It’s possible, and there is a movement to reclaim surplus food from processing plants. Unfortunately, though, infrastructure often isn’t in place to make that happen.

What can we do?

Without clear, enforceable policies and infrastructure at multiple levels, it’s unlikely that food processing plants will fundamentally change their ways. As a consumer and parent, the best thing you can do is reduce the demand for hyper processed food products — by purchasing whole foods or sustainably sourced options for your family and children whenever possible. There are many companies that do reclaim surplus ingredients to make their products.

Grocery buyers and food distributors reject “ugly” produce

We’ve gotten used to apples being bright red, bananas being yellow, and so on. But these images are partly a manufactured aesthetic. As grocery stores want to make sales, they often reject so-called “ugly” produce to meet consumers’ expectations. The problem is, many people don’t know what else to expect.

Worse, farmers feel pressured to use GMO seeds and various chemical fertilizers and additives to make their produce look “pretty.” Those practices harm biodiversity, deplete the soil of nutrients, and leave traces in our environment — not to mention the food itself!

And all those negative effects may be for nothing if food buyers still reject anything that doesn’t look perfect. As a result, farmers are left with surplus produce that constitutes yet more waste of resources, as well as a large environmental footprint for no reason.

Yet more food is wasted as buyers distribute it to other companies. If the shipment isn’t properly preserved, or if the secondary buyer thinks the food is unappealing, it’s usually tossed. About 2 to 5 percent of shipments are ultimately rejected, equating to tons of food and fuel wasted.

Ironically, despite rejecting tons of edible food, grocery stores also overstock their produce to create the appearance of abundance. As we all know, produce tends to spoil quickly, especially when it’s exposed to light and oxygen. That means that grocery stores will bring in extra produce, then discard much of it before anyone ever has a chance to buy it.

What can we do?

Many organizations are teaming up to save the “ugly” fruits and vegetables and send them to food manufacturers, community kitchens, and other places where they will be appreciated. They’re also educating consumers about healthy produce’s true appearance and putting pressure on grocers and food buyers to stop limiting their inventory to “pretty” items. Whenever possible, support your local initiatives and encourage your children to embrace ugly produce.

Better yet, purchase it directly from the farmers. It’s often much cheaper, with a lower carbon footprint. And while your apple or potato may have a funny shape, it’s just as delicious!

Households toss out tons of edible food

While industry does take a lot of the blame for food waste, households contribute to 44 percent of food waste — and much of that ends up in the landfill as well. Many consumers misunderstand product labels such as “sell by” dates. We’ve also been taught that freshness equates to safety, so we willingly discard food that could still be used. The more food goes into the landfill, the more methane is released into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect. In fact, landfilled food waste makes up 5.2% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Part of the problem is that food companies aren’t setting expiration dates for your safety but rather for their profits. It’s in their best interest to move as much product as possible. This means all those “sell by,” “use before,” and “best by” dates are usually recommendations. In fact, there are no clear standards for how they should be used.

What can we do?

Educate yourself and your children on how to safely store your food, and know how to identify expired or contaminated food. More often than not, food is okay to consume past its package date — as long as it’s been stored properly and you see no signs of mold or rot.

Don’t instantly discard produce just because it’s limp or yellowed. Wilted or mushy fruits and vegetables make great ingredients for pies, casseroles, breads, and other delicious foods that you can prepare for your children. And if you don’t feel comfortable eating them, consider composting to help keep them out of the landfill.

Also, be wary of overbuying food. Even if you store it properly, excess food often spoils before you can use it. Don’t fall for marketing ploys such as BOGO deals and bulk purchases. Our society has encouraged us to buy extra and shop the sales. Train yourself and your kids to consume only what you need. Remember, the first of the three R’s is “Reduce”!

Wrapping Up

Food waste isn’t just a matter of greenhouse gases and carbon footprints. The focus on consuming processed foods and pretty produce from chain stores is also contributing to food insecurity. The higher the demand, the more these wasteful processes continue — leaving tons of food on the farms or in landfills. By optimizing our distribution and allowing farmers to escape some of these market pressures, we can make fresh food more accessible to the 12 percent of Americans who struggle to access it.

This problem isn’t confined to the United States, either. Around the world, global food production and distribution have become incredibly wasteful. Worse, it exacerbates climate change and keeps edible food out of hungry mouths. By making conscientious choices and pressuring industries to embrace sustainability, we can go beyond green living: we can keep the planet fed and nourished.

This article is inspired by an interview with Kathryn Bernell, founder of ReHarvest, which reclaims surplus food from manufacturers and farms to create delicious, healthy smoothie pops.

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