In the mid- to late twentieth century, amid the general increase in wealth and wherewithal of the American middle class, mothers were known to chant the mantra to their children, “Eat that! There are children starving in Africa.” Wasting food tends to be a bad habit.
Children were encouraged to be members of the “clean plate club”, eating everything they were served.
There are both bad and good in this approach to eating: over-eating is bad, regardless of how much your mother thinks is the right amount; on the other side of the coin, food–of all things–should not go to waste.
It may shock you to learn that Americans waste around 40 percent of purchased food. In a study by the National Resources Defense Council, the weight of this is described:
“Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. This not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions. Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.”
How Did This Happen?
There is no singular answer. Processed food is cheap and leftovers are thrown away. People are influenced by ever-present marketing and buy more than they eat; when food spoils, it gets tossed. Food that is prepared but not eaten at a restaurant must be thrown away. Large grocery store displays of fresh foods result in items that become too damaged to sell.
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The affluence of the mainstream has led to a loss of perspective when it comes to food–literally and figuratively: the average physical dinner plate is 36 percent larger than in 1960; the perception of filling a plate with food leads to more food than a person can (or should) eat. The convenience and availability of food–both fresh and processed–are tremendously greater than 50 years ago and the whole mindset has consequently changed.
Not only is wasted food a travesty in and of itself but, as the report mentions, it comes at a time economically when unemployment is high and more families are dependent upon social assistance to eat.
The Food Stamp program began in the 1930s to help people during the Depression and was made a permanent federal program under President Johnson in the 1960s. In 1969, the number of people using Food Stamps was 2.9 million; in 2013 it was 47.6 million.
We might not think about it but there are greater consequences to vast amounts of food ending up as garbage: more garbage.
Bigger landfills, more required waste disposal, and increased methane emissions (greenhouse gas). This is a sub-economy in itself, posing a separate set of issues.
There are regulations around the disposal of food to minimize related disease. As the result of the 1996 Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, however, excess food can be donated and redistributed. Darden Restaurants (the parent company of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and others), for example, has donated 66 million pounds of food in the past 10 years.
The Food Donation Connection is a service that matches suppliers of extra food with people in need. It has been working in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom with plans to expand to Mexico, France, and Australia. This translates to less food waste and more children’s full tummies:
“Children in all areas of the country benefit from this food but some donors have an even bigger impact because of the types of food they donate”
like salads, sandwiches, and fresh fruit. This is a wonderful thing, as 20 percent of American children do not have food security. Unbelievable, in our land of plenty.
There are steps that can be taken to not only reduce waste but to put the food on the tables of those who might otherwise go without. The Environmental Protection Agency has online resources for businesses on how to reduce waste and distribute overages. There are things individuals can do as well, starting with becoming simply mindful of food consumption.
On your way out of the supermarket, drop a couple of those packages of pasta or canned fish that you bought on sale into the bin for the local food bank. Become a food connection yourself, matching grocers’ unsellable food to local organizations. Discuss options with the school district on managing food left over from cafeterias. Compost fruit and vegetable scraps at home. Re-make your dinner’s leftovers into something new.
Simply: don’t buy more than you eat, don’t eat more than you need, and share what you can spare.