Somewhere deep within the back recesses or perhaps the chiller drawers of your refrigerator lurks something nefarious. It seems innocuous enough; you simply forgot that leftover meatloaf sandwich you planned to eat for lunch. Perhaps you bought a bag of carrots for that stew you never got around to making. Maybe that half-empty bottle of milk reached past its recommended date of use the day before yesterday. As you sort through your fridge, you casually discard of the uneaten containers of takeout food and moldy cheese. As you wheel your trash can to the curb, you probably don’t give a second thought to the lost snacks inside, the breakfasts that never were, or potential meals that never were. Though you see no harm in chucking a few mealy apples, their destiny is a bit more menacing than just a rotten odor. The food you throw into the landfill will release greenhouse gas emissions, adding to the threat of climate change; it will also divert nourishment from society and from soil. And, it has a greater impact on your wallet than you may realize.
Food Waste and Statistics
The issue of food waste is a major problem for the world-at-large. Approximately one-third of the food produced across the globe is lost or wasted every year. That one-third amounts to approximately 1.4 billion tons. The food waste problem is especially glaring here in North America, particularly when assessed through the lens of economic impact. Consider that Canada loses over $30 billion, or 2% of their total Gross Domestic product, as a result of food waste every year. This number doesn’t even account for possible costs associated with food waste’s impact on energy, water, labor, capital or infrastructure, which could potentially triple the bottom line. Canada’s loss seems modest when compared to the United States, however. America’s capacity for production and inefficiency totals out at $161 billion in uneaten food every year, representing between 30 and 40 percent of the edible food that our country produces. This waste is also the biggest contributor to the American landfills by volume, as 21 percent of our waste stream is comprised of uneaten food. The 60 million tons that Americans don’t eat requires nearly 220 billion dollars to grow, process and transport. While this is surely an impressive demonstration of inefficiency in our national model of production and consumption, what it means from a more personal perspective is that on average, each individual wastes 400 pounds of food each year.
The high price of wasted food to our nation is not just economic in nature, but also carries an environmental cost. Twenty percent of the U.S.’s water supply goes into growing wasted food. The uneaten food also requires vast stretches of land that could be otherwise utilized. In addition, food waste is a major contributor to climate change, creating 7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is even more frustrating when factoring in the social circumstances of food insecurity. In a nation where as much as 40 percent of our food will never be eaten, one in seven Americans faces uncertainty about getting enough to eat.
Strategies for Prevention
With the colossal scale of food waste in the U.S., it can be easy to forget that this is a global problem and that the stakes truly impact every person on the planet. However, despite the daunting nature of the problem, there is much to be done to alleviate waste at the local and even at the individual level. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Everyone creates wasted food, but it is just as simple not to create it.”
The EPA arranges the opportunities for reducing food waste into a hierarchy based on the potential to mitigate waste at each stage of your carrot or strawberry’s journey from the farm to the landfill. At the top of the hierarchy is “source reduction,” or reducing the volume of surplus food generated. Source reduction is the best opportunity to reduce waste the most, as simply growing less food will minimize opportunities for waste further along our food’s path. With less food grown, there will be that many fewer inefficiencies in other resources, such as fuel or labor invested into transporting or processing products that will never be eaten. It is at this stage, prior to food ever reaching the stores, when up to twice of the greenhouse gas emissions per ton resulting from wasted food could be curbed. This is due to the amount of surplus produce from farms or packing houses that will be passed over, discarded, or plowed back into the fields for failing to meet standards of “quality” for retail sales. These quality standards are not necessarily an indicator of nutritional content, flavor, or even of how edible they may be. Rather, produce may be rejected because it is not the appropriate size or shape. Such cosmetic deficiencies can make fruits or vegetables less attractive to customers, or may be awkward for storing in their containers during transport or in merchandising displays.
Feed Hungry People
The second tier in the hierarchy is to “Feed Hungry People.” Establishments such as buffets and grocery stores often display more food than they expect to sell, a strategy that keeps their offerings looking full and appealing to consumers, but ultimately resulting in disposing of these surpluses. Fresh and prepared foods that go unconsumed can still be of use, either through donation to food pantries, shelters, or other services dedicated to feeding the hungry. Fresh produce may also be diverted at this stage to a grocer’s prepared foods facilities to become juices, soups, or other dishes. Food that is beyond its fitness for human consumption may also be diverted to other tiers in the hierarchy, as food scraps may be collected for animal feed.
Other diversion techniques may include processing food scraps for industrial uses such as rendering and converting to fuel, or it may be composted to create a nutrient-rich humus to be used in agriculture or gardening. All of these strategies are preferable to the bottom of the hierarchy, as each stage sees a diminishing potential for recovering resources.
This last resort is food waste disposal through a landfill or incineration. While these last resorts are far from ideal, incineration provides advantages over dumping food waste straight into the landfill, as it can reduce the amount of space taken up by the refuse. In addition, incineration can mitigate the climate impact, as combustion will release carbon dioxide rather than the far more dangerous methane gas that decomposition produces.
As noted above, the best opportunity for preventing food waste is at the source. When it comes to fruit and vegetables, much of the waste is due to superficial standards that we place on our produce. “No one is taking this produce home to paint a still life of it,” says Patrick Schroeder, Willy Street Co-op’s Prepared Foods Category Manager, in reference to the tendency of customers to seek out only the most visually appealing product. “The reason why there is even a classification between these types of produce is because people have proven that they will purchase one over another with their buying habits.” This shallow approach to consumption has contributed to a culture in which nutrition and efficiency comes in second to beauty. Fortunately, over the past few years, grocery retailers across the world have begun to challenge customer perceptions about what makes a piece of produce truly beautiful.
A few years ago, grocery stores in Europe began to address the fact that the farmers were chucking perfectly viable products just because they were ugly. In 2014, the European declared it to be the “Year Against Food Waste” and retailers like France’s Intermarché quickly answered the call, selling their farmers’ more unsightly fruits and vegetables and promoting campaigns to re-educate their customers on the validity of blemished or bumpy products. Other European grocers and supermarkets soon followed suit, displaying ugly produce in displays next to their traditional offerings so that consumers might observe how they compared. Retailers also served prepared products made from these seemingly unsightly produce items in the form of soups or juices to show them to be equal in flavor and freshness. It wasn’t long before this flirtation with secondary grade (but not of second rate) produce made its wayto North America.
Willy Street Co-op Food waste Reduction Efforts
Over the last two years, Willy Street Co-op has worked to reduce food waste through cooperation with local farmers. We have requested that our partners, including Wisconsin Growers and New Traditions, supply distressed or Grade B produce for use in our recipes at our Production Kitchens and Deli facilities. Delicious but cosmetically inferior items we have used include potatoes, bell peppers, zucchini and sweet potatoes. According to Patrick Schroeder, “Perhaps the core reason to have a prepared foods department at a natural grocery store could be to bring food to market that might not otherwise have gotten to market.” The ability to source produce provides a great opportunity for Willy Street Co-op, as it allows us to pass savings and quality onto the customer. Utilizing crops that might otherwise have gone to waste in our operations means that the Co-op can meet the challenge of offering dishes made from organic and local produce while also staying competitive on cost. It also means greater security and opportunity for local farmers. When farmers have crops of veggies or fruits that don’t meet the typical retail size or shape, they can know that Willy Street Co-op has a demand for crops they might not have sold otherwise. When our Door County fruit vendors suffered a poor strawberry season, they knew that they would be dependent on peach sales even though many might prove unsightly to customers. What might have proved an unfortunate situation for a local fruit vendor instead resulted in peach pies baked in the Willy Street Co-op Kitchen. Roughly 800 pounds of fruit was purchased and turned into delicious filling.
While Willy Street Co-op continues to lead the charge against food waste in the local food system by championing greater infrastructure and processing, and more efficient sourcing, the problems of food waste remain a stark challenge requiring cooperation between consumers, growers, governments and businesses to shift a culture and a food system to greater efficiency. Doing so will require that organizations work to financially incentivize donations of uneaten food from businesses as well as provide standardized information and regulations to that end. This would include educating businesses on the liability protections and food handling practices that are involved in donating their surpluses. It also implies a need for greater logistics and infrastructure for the transport, processing, and distribution of this excess food.
There are also simple methods of storage, marketing and education that can have a big impact. A prime example is date labeling. Distinguishing between “Sell By” dates, “Use By” dates and “Best By” dates can have an impact on food donations and consumption by customers, and rectifying this confusion could reduce food waste by as much as 20 percent. Despite common misconceptions, these dates are not interchangeable. Sell By dates only govern when a retailer must cease to offer a product to customers for purchase, while Use By and Best By are recommendations for enjoying the product at its highest quality, although that product may be safe or edible for days after.
Carefully discerning how and when to use product to its maximum efficiency is only one method by which consumers can help to reduce food waste. Seeking out methods for putting scrap material to use either through a backyard compost pile or distributing to farmers as animal feed can also divert this waste from the landfill. Consumers may also prevent waste by carefully planning their purchases and preparation to avoid excess and uneaten leftovers. These practices prove fruitful to our environment and food supply, but they will to our wallets as well. Probably the most effective way for customers to impact a system of waste for the better is tomake their voice heard through their purchasing power. Requesting products that do not meet superficial standards of quality in produce will help to dismantle the grading system that rejects viable quality fruits and vegetables. Buying these distressed or ugly products along with other mindful approaches to our consumption habits will reform our global food system into one of ideal distribution and maximum efficiency without fear or waste, hunger or environmental threat.