Say No to Food Waste

May 10th, 2017 | By | Category: Commentary

By Janna Graham/ Pocatello Co-op

Janna Graham

Janna Graham

Spring has tentatively arrived, the start of a season of abundance in southeastern Idaho.  Gardeners can get back into the dirt, and local farmers, ranchers, cottage food producers, and artisans will soon start offering their wares at the Portneuf Valley Farmers Market, which returns to the Old Town Pavilion on Saturday, May 6.

As we start planting our gardens and eyeing the bounty of the Farmers Market, it is natural to imagine the produce-rich meals that await us.  Vegetable soups, green smoothies, and colorful salads will become daily staples for the next several months as we snack contentedly between meals on carrots and peppers.  As most of us realize, however, the reality is a little less rosy.  Last summer, the Guardian reported that the U.S. discards about 50% (yes, half) of the produce grown within its borders.  This amounts to about 60 billion tons per year, the equivalent of $160 billion.  The largest single component of our landfills is food – up to 21% of landfill mass, according to hunger relief organization Feeding America.

There are numerous reasons why the U.S. leads the world in the production of food waste.  The Guardian report points to the American obsession with aesthetic perfection – an intolerance (sometimes backed by regulatory standards) of fruits and vegetables that are differently shaped, off color, bruised, scratched, or otherwise “flawed.”  In the U.S., plentiful harvests are the norm, which means that food retailers can afford to reject produce that doesn’t meet exacting standards.  Food producers, not wanting to jeopardize future sales, are often unwilling to protest, even when they know the rejected fruits and vegetables are just as safe, tasty, and nutritious as any other.  If that produce doesn’t sell, or if the producer knows that he or she won’t find a market for it, it may be dumped or left in the field to rot.  In the meantime, consumers who are accustomed to seeing ideal produce at the supermarket lose the ability to appreciate variety, so the cycle continues.

There’s more to it, however.  Modern technologies and growing practices, for better or worse, allow us to blur or even obliterate the seasonality of most fruits and vegetables.  If something is always available, we aren’t as likely to be careful about wasting it.  In addition, our modern food production and distribution system allows the average eater to procure the food she or he consumes cheaply and with relatively little effort.  When we aren’t putting in the work hunting, gathering, or growing our own food, we may feel less invested in using it wisely.  Culturally, we’ve also seen a decline in the food preservation skills that allow us to keep food longer.  We do less fermenting, canning, and drying than Americans did decades ago.  Even when the food is fresh, we don’t always know what to do with it, so an impulse purchase may end up spoiling before we get around to eating it.

Do we really understand what it means to throw away so much food?  We should, because the impact of food waste is massive.  Aside from the human labor that goes into producing discarded food (some of which never even leaves the field), we are using up a lot of natural resources in vain, with significant effects on our land, air, and water.  A 2009 study by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases found that 25% of fresh water and 4% of oil consumed in the U.S. is used to produce discarded food.  Moreover, as food decays in landfills, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that may have long-term effects on environmental health.  Most disturbing, however, is that the amount of edible food we throw away could, if properly used, effectively deal with hunger in the U.S.  Feeding America reports that 46 million people access their network each year, and the USDA’s most recent data indicates that 13.1 million children in the U.S. lived in food-insecure households that don’t have consistent, reliable access to food.  The Idaho Foodbank reports that more than 240,000 Idahoans are food insecure, including 80,000 children.  Throwing away so much food when so many of us are hungry requires a twisted logic that we should no longer tolerate.

The food waste problem belongs to all of us, even though most people underestimate their contribution to it.  We may think that there’s not much more we can personally do to address the problem.  But perhaps this is the season to challenge ourselves to do better.  We can plan better by consciously considering what to do with every bit of food that comes into our homes.  We can learn better by seeking out unusual cuts of meat – what might otherwise be discarded during butchering – and finding out how to prepare them.  We can learn how to use the leafy tops of beets, radishes, turnips, celery, and carrots in stir fries and salads; how to prepare melon and squash seeds for snacking; how to use scraps to create homemade vegetable and bone broths; how to preserve excess food for later; and how to compost what’s left over.  We can share better by asking local markets to start “ugly vegetable” sections, with discounts on unusual-looking produce; posting photos of non-uniform produce on social media; finding a good home for extra food; and donating to the Idaho Foodbank or a hunger relief organization.  This is the start of the season of abundance, but it is time to stop being careless and stop taking that abundance for granted.

Janna Graham is the outreach coordinator for the Pocatello Co-op. For more information visit http://www.pocatello.coop/

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