Food is one of the most basic necessities for the existence of life, so much so that it has shaped civilization for 10,000 years, building up civilizations in times of plenty and bringing them to their knees when supplies are scarce.
We have named gods for protection of specific crops, the harvest, the weather and the water, all so we can have food. We have reshaped the surface of the earth through creation of reservoirs and rivers for irrigation, deforested and cleared millions of square acres for livestock and the food that our food requires to provide for us.
Entire pillars of faiths are built around the idea that food is sacred and must be honored and protected and that it must be shared with those that do not have it. We name areas of the United States such as the Napa Valley, “America’s Bread Basket” – we’re now naming food after food. It’s that important and celebrated.
In spite of this, in the United States, we do not respect food. Until the early 1900’s the US was an agrarian nation; we were a nation of farmers, trying to establish a foothold in the world. After industrialization and automation became the way of the world, we lost our connection to the land and, in turn, our connection to food.
The introduction of conspicuous consumerism and the credit economy in the 1920’s led to the Great Depression and WWII, soon followed by the explosion of suburban America. When automation and mass production hit the food industry, we were left with little or no connection to the work of the farmer, a disconnect that we have yet to truly recover from. Our country dominates the world in food production, but we don’t eat all of that food.
By the Numbers
We have all been guilty of food waste in scenarios that play out time and time again at the family table, the office or at school. What we don’t see is the enormous cost of waste behind the scenes; controversy over sell-by dates, the obscene amounts of food being thrown away by grocery stores, supermarkets, and restaurants, as well as the environmental and financial impact. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, in 2015, the US wasted almost 50% of all food produced.
At $300 Billion annually of total production, we are wasting $150 Billion a year in food, while over 10% of the country has a hard time putting adequate, nutritional food on the table. This equates to roughly 60 million tons of food (120 billion with a “b”) or about 370 pounds per every man, woman, and child per year.
The costs don’t stop there. All of that waste has to be trucked out to landfills where it decomposes, producing greenhouse gasses. (Quick solutions – don’t buy what you won’t eat, don’t buy more than you will eat, compost your uneaten leftovers or find out what you can and cannot donate. See the links below for more information.)
Misperceptions in Food
An article published in The Guardian in 2016 claims we have become our own victims in a “cult of perfection” meaning that we must have the best, brightest, most uniform, nearly cartoon colored food. If not, no one wants it. Fields of crops are left to rot because farmers can’t sell them due to this nature of perfection. While much of it can be recycled into animal feed, most of it is not. This isn’t just an issue in the United States. This is a global issue.
Worldwide estimates of waste are put at 1.6 billion tons, roughly $1 trillion. The environmental impact is roughly 8% of total pollution which is far more than the poorest, most polluted industrial countries produce.
Corporate Contribution and Crossing Class Thresholds
If just produce-related waste were reduced by 50%, companies would also see their profits cut in half – they would have to sell more food and at a cheaper price just to move it off the shelves. Supermarkets won’t buy what they can’t sell and during harsh economic times, sales slump which causes a reverberating effect all the way back to the farmer. This is food that could go to feeding the hungry and starving.
Food waste transcends economic class in the US and that is largely based on the misconception that it is inedible or that the consumer just no longer cares for it. This creates an issue that is based on inconsistent food safety regulations, irresponsible marketing, and how litigious our society has become.
Inconsistencies in Labelling Regulations and the Big Box Lobby
Food labeling and proper usage of expiration dates are vital to selling healthy and safe food. Recommended sell-by dates are often shortened, sometimes by as much as a week. Many people interpret this as the date that the product spoils which is, in several instances, simply untrue. Legislation has been introduced in The Food Date Labeling Act that would streamline the current system into something easier to understand with labels such as Sell by Date and Good Until Date.
Unfortunately, with powerful companies such as Wal-Mart fighting against such regulation, it would be optimistic to expect any large change to occur. Another piece of legislation, the Food Recovery Act, doesn’t regulate the food industry but it does require all food producers with government contracts to donate unsold food to food pantries and shelters.
Communities Will Create Change Where Agencies Will Not
These types of legislation require the FDA, USDA, EPA, and Congress to make changes to the way these agencies and companies operate and would require them to work together. With the tone of the current administration and the appointments made to those departments, it stands to reason that this isn’t going to change any time soon on the national level, so it needs to begin at the local and state level with the individual.
One person can influence many others to change with a simple idea. Right now, the focus should be on education and awareness and to provide people the knowledge they need, so that when the time comes for a more politically sympathetic climate, that legislation can be introduced on a national level with a solid grassroots movement that would have (hopefully) the backing of state-level power players. This could be as simple as reaching out to a local farm or group of like-minded individuals to get a discussion started or to join one already in progress.
Technology is going to play a big role in spreading information and networking, but this starts with simple acts of the individual and their community.
What Do You Do?
Here are some more links to sources that provide information on composting and food donations in the Austin area