Nearly half of the food we produce in the United States is wasted. I repeat that statistic with an indiscernible drawl to many volunteers, potential funders, community leaders, friends and family members in a hope that I will appear intellectual. But the truth is, I have not really considered this figure in terms of my family of two + animal. What does nearly 50% look like financially? In terms of volume? Graphically? Well, I decided to check it out and to be honest about the findings no matter how embarrassing it was.
For example, me and my ten-year-old son and my 13-year-old dog spend approximately $300 a month on food. In this example, nearly $150 per month is wasted. That’s almost $2,000 per year!
I usually throw out one full trash bag once per week. The bag weighs roughly 25 lbs. (Yes, I actually put my smelly, messy trash bag on my scale). It was the first thing that was on my scale in months anyway. That equates to much less than the US average of 4 to 5 pounds per person per day or nearly 1860 pounds per year. My 1,300 pounds is less for US standards, but above Europeans, which average 1,200 pounds each month; remember, however, I am a household of 2 and the average is 2.5.
I am more familiar with food waste than most Americans care to be. For seven years, I worked as an environmental educator for a local municipality in partnership with a school district. I set up a program where I and 64 fifth-grade classrooms sorted and separated the lunch waste from 16 elementary schools. The results of this messy, stinky and yucky activity provided both the city and the school district with definitive data. Nearly 300 pounds per day were being thrown away at each site. Of this waste, 15% was milk cartons (sometimes whole milks, unopened), 70% was food (all forms, veggies, meat, cheese, and some wrappers) and only 5% was Styrofoam trays and spork packets and other non-recyclable trash.
Working with the local trash hauler, EJ Harrison and a national non-profit, The Carton Council, we were able to set up diversion programs in each of the 16 schools. I presented to each classroom with a 30 to 60-minute STEM presentation to educate and prepare the kids. We created a 5-minute video that could be shown in classrooms prior to implementation and myself and volunteers helped students at each lunch session in each school to sort and place items in the appropriate containers. While this program was highly successful, it failed to address the food waste that resulted in archaic nutrition policies set by the school district and US Department of Child Nutrition. Because of this, much of the uneaten food, including shelf-stable products, unopened milk and uneaten fruit was still tossed in the trash.
According to the EPA, the more effective option in the waste diversion strategy is to donate abundant food before it spoils. There are many organizations working to solve this issue and collectively they are diverting millions of pounds of edible food from landfills, donating it to those in our community who lack access to affordable, nutritious food.
Gleaning was something commonly practiced during the turn of the first century. As farmers cleared the last of their fields, the community was allowed to enter and take what culls were left. This is where canning and other food preservation tactics were best employed and widely used. But, after the industrialization of the food system and modern conveniences like refrigeration and the stigma associated with it as incomes shifted, people moved away from this practice.
But farming isn’t like it was a few hundred years ago. Today, less than 2% of US population is involved in bringing food to tables of American families when just a few decades ago, when nearly half of the population was involved in some part of the food shed. And let’s be honest. Most of the farmers in in this region don’t feed the local people; in fact less than 4% of the food grown in the County stays in the County. The majority of it enters the (for profit) global food market where, as mentioned before, nearly half of it is wasted.
So, this week I was able to tour a local celery packaging plant. Celery is grown on local farm fields, the fifth largest crop grown in Ventura County, then much of it, not all of it, is sent to this packaging house for processing and distribution. This company produces a number of value-added products including .5 oz, 1.5 oz, 3 oz, 12 oz, etc. packages which are then sold and distributed nation-wide. There is A LOT of waste in the processing of this product, which, thankfully ends up going to a nearby cattle ranch for feedstock. But, they have between 100 to 300 boxes, which could translate into over 22,000 servings a day in surplus for donation. (That’s marketable food, even though thousands of pounds of edible but not marketable produce is diverted to feedstock). This perfectly edible food is now going to those in need instead of the landfill.
Sell-by dates can be a bit of a bugger for industrial farms. Companies use a variety of (unregulated) terms like “best by”, “use before” and “sell by” that confuse consumers, wholesale distributors and retailers alike. This misunderstanding is estimated to cost Americans nearly $30 billion annually.
The weird thing about US food policy is that multinational corporations, posing as farmers, gain multiple government subsidies to grow industrial-scale, mono-cultured, likely GMO, cash crops we know as wheat, soybeans and corn. This is then turned into feedstock for cattle (33%), biofuels (16%) and the rest is made into various food products. Of which an unknown amount (kinda verifiably yet anecdotally) consisting of primarily shelf-stable, often-times processed and sodium-laden, foods like breads, rice, canned vegetables and other packaged foods are “sold” to these pantries ironically, across the nation, via the USDA Food Program. So those in Ventura County who are the 1 in 8 with food insecurity issues, food pantries donations can account for more than half of their household’s food. But not everyone benefits from public food donation programs. Many working poor simply don’t qualify. Many others are not aware of their ability to access this food and finally most are self-conscious about the stigma with receiving government assistance.
This invariably leads me to ask, what can be done to fix this obviously idiotic error of free market economy? Well, surprisingly a lot.
Remember how we all adapted to sorting our trash for recycling? Or how we now carry our reusable bags into the grocery store? Well, reducing food waste is that easy.
1. Buy Local. Yes. More and more grocery stores and restaurants are celebrating the bounty that surrounds our communities. There are local, small to medium farmers who believe in organic, no-till, pesticide and GMO-free food production AND, thankfully, the mainstream is starting to have an appetite for this (sorry, couldn’t help myself).
2. Budget. I am guilty of not doing this very well. See something new and want to try it? Sure, do it! But realize that everything outside of the norm might likely end up in our trash cans. Believe me, as a mother of a ten-year-old, trying new things don’t always pan out. Make a budget (and with that a sensible, nutritious, healthy diet) and stick to it. I do this thing I call “panty cooking” where every couple of weeks, I inventory what I have in my cabinets and come up with recipes that match my available ingredients. It saves money and clears out my cabinets.
3. Recycle food. Yes, you can make amazingly delicious and nutritious meals from scraps. Consider Bone Broth, all the rage now in health food stores, but it’s easy to make from leftover roasted chicken and the ends, cuttings and leftovers from veggies. Simmer that all up into a very healthy and nutritious broth you can use to steam veggies, cook proteins and grains. It adds flavor and nutrition.
4. Compost. After you make the delicious broth, take veggie scraps (and honestly, at this point, all scraps) to the compost pile that you hardly use in your back yard. Yes, you can add a mix of vegetable clippings, browns (dried leaves, shredded cardboard) and grass clipping. It will break down naturally into a rich and reusable base for your very own vegetable garden; which, by the way leads me to suggestion number 5.
5. Grow your Own. Heck! Tell me the truth! Would you waste a perfectly good tomato if you grew it yourself? If you grew it, all on your own, lovingly, painstakingly, watering it weekly, chasing away critters, would you consider wasting it? Then why do we feel it’s okay to do the same thing with a tomato grown by a local farmer? I repeat. Grow your own vegetables. You will love it. Trust me.
6. Get involved! There are plenty of local organizations that offer volunteer and educational opportunities to be more food savvy. For example, where I live, there is a school program that teaches students about agriculture. Another teaches students about food waste and how to prevent it. You can volunteer with food recovery organizations that are sprouting (yes, I did it again) all over the place.
7. Try Meatless Mondays. It takes approximately 600 gallons of water to make one cheeseburger. Think of the millions of cheeseburgers wasted every day. Drive by any feed lot (I-5 California) and you will get a very certain truth well up in your gut and it’s not indigestion. It’s guilt. We mistreat animals and we then carelessly heave away their value with indiscriminate consumerism.
8. Donate. Either your time or your overstocked pantry is a priceless gift of selflessness. There are tons of pantries that support the working poor, the migrant workers who pick our food buy can’t afford to buy it, family living paycheck to paycheck, the mother who lives with her two kids in her car because her husband, an abusive alcoholic is no longer tolerable. Everyone is trying to do the best they can with what they have. If you have more than you need, why not share? And if you’ve got time to share, think about donating that to serve others.
9. Pack your child’s lunch. Unfortunately, and it pains me to say this, many public schools fail to offer healthy, nutritious and most importantly desirable food to our youth. For example, in my son’s school district, they’ve banned full fat milk and chocolate milk. Yet, the juice they provide as more sugar than the chocolate milk and the fat-free milk ends up in the trash can fully unopened. I’ve seen packaged, processed, disgusting food sitting on my son’s tray day after day and yet, the child nutrition program insists that it offers the most nutritious meals available. Bull-tucky. Speak up at school council meetings and advocate for change; be inspired by others who’ve done the same.
10. Slow Down. I am guilty of moving too fast, multi-tasking, road rage, incensed anger over parking lot trivialities, Truth is, we are over-worked, under-paid, over-stretched, under-appreciated and it is beginning to show. Slowing down in every area of life, especially at the dinner table might help with an innumerate number of social ills.
In the end, we are in control of the food system, even if we get overwhelmed by its massiveness. The truth is that we drive the consumeristic model (despite what advertisers attempt to make us believe) and if we don’t buy it, they will no longer sell it.
The foodshed issue is something that we are all directly connected to and can have an impact on. Our consumer choices will make a difference. And there isn’t one solution for every household. Some might benefit from subscribing from the food delivery programs proliferating the market. Others might enjoy growing their own food while others will still need to rely on food pantries. But the bottom-line is that we need to shift away from our wasteful, hedonic and selfish habits and strive for something that is more humane and both self and globally sustainable.