Sunday Morning Random Thoughts — More Food Than We Need Edition
Let’s jump right into it today: There is absolutely no reason on earth (literally) for anyone on this planet to be hungry. Even more so, the notion that people are hungry in the United States is an absolute absurdity. Let me throw a few figures your way. 29 million tons of food goes to waste in the United States every year. Do the math and that comes out to 58 billion pounds. Now it’s true that no food supply could ever be perfectly efficient. No argument there. But what level of inefficiency are we willing to accept? Those figures above amount to approximately 40% of all food produced in this country. Think about that. Nearly half of the food we produce is thrown away, and yet there is an on-going debate regarding hunger in this country that includes discussions on how to produce even more food in order to help solve the problem. The problem isn’t that we aren’t producing enough food to adequately feed every person in this country. The problem is we’re throwing too much of it away.
How do we manage to be so incredibly wasteful? Let’s start with restaurants and our national trend toward humongous portions. We have been very well trained to believe that the single best determinant of value is quantity. More for your buck beats better for your buck every time. And so restaurants drop 16 and 20 ounce steaks on our plate, right beside the half-pound baked potato, the two additional sides, and the buttermilk biscuit. (Did you save room for dessert?) What does this excess in portion sizes lead to? 6000 tons of food discarded daily from restaurants across the country. That’s a one good value, isn’t it?
Waste is a product of the industrialized food production system, as well, with losses occurring at every level of the system. Focusing specifically on the last the step in the process, the retail level, the amount of food discarded is staggering. The USDA estimated that in 2008 in-store food losses reached 43 billion pounds (21,500,000 tons for those keeping track). This is due in large part to the inefficiencies built into large-volume systems. A Safeway, for instance, has to project a certain amount of volume and when sales fluctuate, as sales always do, the store is stuck with the surplus. This may not be so bad when we’re talking about boxed macaroni and cheese that has a long shelf life, but when it comes to bananas and mangoes, that surplus gets trashed almost immediately. This waste is seen by the retail industry as just part of doing business. Better to be stuck tossing out tons of food than run the risk of having the “customer experience” suffer.
On the production side, crops often go unharvested because market fluctuations have driven the prices so low the cost of harvesting outstrips the potential return on selling the crops. Often in such instances, farmers simply plow the field under and start over again. Beyond this, however, and more alarming than perhaps anything else, is the fact that each year tons of harvested crops go unsold because they do not meet federal guidelines for such things as shape, size, or color. In many instances this “culling” of the harvested crops can result in over 50% of the food being discarded despite being perfectly edible. In a recent report I read, one tomato packing-plant reported it could fill a dump truck with 22,000 pounds of discarded tomatoes every 40 minutes. That’s about 265,000 pounds of tomatoes discarded in a single 8 hour work shift. When I hear numbers like this I begin to believe our efficiency in destroying food far exceeds are efficiency in producing it.
So, what can be done? At the home level, where an average of 25% of all food and beverages purchased is eventually thrown away, better planning and less impulse and unnecessary bulk buying will help. (Is the 64 pack really a better deal if you’re going to throw 32 of them away?) We need for many reasons, not the least of which is overall health, to move away from the “super-sized” mentality that currently pervades our fast food and restaurant systems. More realistic portion sizes will reduce both our food waste and our waistlines, both of which are positives outcomes.
There needs to be a system that allows for the edible food that does not meet federal guidelines for consumption (I shake my head every time I write that) to be redirected and used elsewhere. Food banks in some states are already able to “harvest” some of this food and use it to feed the needy. Such efforts need to be encouraged and expanded. Whatever barriers there are, whether at the state or federal level, preventing this food from finding its way to the hungry need to be removed. And I don’t necessarily mean just for funneling the food into food banks and the like. If this food can brought to market through a different means—farmers markets, produce stands, etc—that’s fine too. I’d pay for a peach that has nothing else wrong with it than its circumference. It is a crime (figuratively speaking of course) for already-harvested and safely edible food to be discarded.
Moving away from the industrial food system wherever possible will also help. Inefficiencies and waste occur at every level of the multi-step system, from farming to harvesting to transporting to processing and packaging to re-transporting to retail. By the time food has passed through the half-dozen steps, each taking its various shares in waste, it’s no wonder so much is lost. Purchasing whatever is available locally from local producers eliminates most of those steps and, therefore, the potential for waste inherent to each. Doing so also supports and strengthens the local economy, which could and probably will be a topic for future discussion.