Here’s a little something to chew on along with your breakfast bagel: The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates Americans throw away more than 25 percent of all food produced for domestic consumption. A family of four tosses about $590 worth of food every year.
This seems a bit stunning at first. It’s like saying out of a dozen eggs, three go into the trash. You buy four packs of ground beef, one of them goes into the garbage. One-fourth of your food bill at the grocery is money out the window.
Hopefully, most households are not that wasteful. The study also takes into account production facilities and restaurants, where the problem can be especially difficult to solve. Convenience stores prepare foods and hold them, ready to eat, waiting for hungry customers to walk through the door. When they don’t, and those hot dogs and deli sandwiches are no longer appetizing, they go away. That’s one of the hidden costs of the “convenience” American consumers demand.
We’re fairly frugal at our house. We don’t even throw away empty bread bags. We reuse them for packing lunches. Why buy sandwich bags when you can get them for free?
I think we’re under the 25 percent, but I can still see where some things go to waste. Food left on plates because eyes were bigger than bellies. Yogurt we let slip past the expiration date. Leftover hamburger buns that turn into science experiments in the bread drawer. Potatoes that go soft before we can use them.
Like others, we throw everything we can into the compost pile, which reduces our trash and provides rich organic material for our garden. In that way, yesterday’s food waste is in part redeemed by helping nurture tomorrow’s tomatoes and sweet corn.
When food goes into a landfill, however, it can percolate there for a while, producing methane gas. Some communities have figured out ways to harness it for energy production, but where it escapes into the air, methane gas is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Then there’s the cost of water, fossil fuels and everything else that goes into growing, processing and transporting the food we throw away. Those resources get wasted, too.
And the human cost?
The USDA estimates that at some point during 2008, 16 percent of Americans were unable to buy enough food for a healthy diet. When the 2009 numbers are released some time this year, that number is likely to rise. Even an English major like me can do the math and see the difference our 25 percent of waste might make in the lives of the 16 percent of our neighbors who know hunger.
Some might frown on such talk as “redistribution” of resources. I call it good stewardship and just using what you need, which is common sense.
Editor Nancy Pittman once asked, rhetorically: “Isn’t the conservation of our natural resources the highest kind of patriotism?”
Perhaps the same can be said of conserving food resources.
What to do? As with other things, simply being more conscious of our attitude toward food is a significant step toward reducing waste.
Just in time for the Easter season, a study published in the International Journal of Obesity showed how the meal portions have grown over the centuries in artistic renditions of The Last Supper. Maybe there’s something to be learned about how our ideas about food have evolved.
As long as we have the money to spend, the variety and year-round availability of food is greater than ever. Cooking-oriented TV programming has grown, making food as much about entertainment as nourishment. Food in America is practically its own culture. There’s nothing wrong with that, except perhaps in the context of the negative impact overeating and processed foods have on our health.
Cooking smaller, eating smarter, not going back for seconds (something I struggle with as my middle-age metabolism does not always keep pace with my teenage appetite), and sharing our surplus with others, is not only good for our bodies, but good for our neighbors and natural resources, too. Like most profitable things in life, it comes down to discipline.
It would be nice if Americans could translate some of their fascination with food into something more resembling a reverence for the gift that it is.
Something to chew on, as I say. By the way, are you going to finish that bagel?
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org.