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The Humanitarian Side of Everything: Food Waste

Welcome to "The Humanitarian Side of Everything: Creating Positive Impact in Your Daily Life" on Listenable! This is Lesson Four, and I'm your host, Alexa.

When I think of food waste, the first thing that comes to mind is the scraps of uneaten food that get tossed in the trash after a meal. This, however, is only a fraction of the problem. Edible food is discarded at every step of the supply chain, from production, processing, and distribution, to retail and consumption. This results in a fundamental problem of people who desperately need food not getting it while unused food warms the Earth at incredible rates.

America wastes roughly 72 billion pounds of safe food every year. To put this into perspective, an alarming 40 percent of food from the supply chain goes uneaten, equal to nearly $218 billion dollars worth of food. Additionally, on-farm food loss is increasingly growing as prices fluctuate and farmers cannot justify harvesting more than the market demands. A study found that one-third of edible crops are left in the field to rot because of complex economic forces and buyer standards.

Food loss refers to food that is discarded before reaching the market at the production, processing, and distribution stages of the supply chain. This type of loss is perpetuated by inadequate storage infrastructure resulting in spills and spoils, overproduction and poor farm management, and stringent aesthetic and safety standards.

Food waste, on the other hand, is food that has been deemed unfit for consumption by consumers, retailers, and food purveyors. This form of waste is driven by consumer behavior and the foodservice industry. Food is wasted on different scales regionally. In higher-income countries, 40 percent of food is willfully wasted by consumers and retailers, whereas low-income regions lose 40 percent of food during post-harvest stages as a result of insufficient infrastructure.

Shelf life labels can be misleading for consumers and cause them to prematurely discard food with past dates; according to the U.S Food & Drug Administration, the misconceptions held about them account for 20 percent of consumer food waste. The federal government does not require or prescribe universal product dating on food, yet most, if not all, retailers and manufacturers label meat, poultry, and egg products with expiration dates. Forty-one states and the District of Columbia require some date labels for certain foods; out of those, 20 of them bar the sale or donation of food past the quality date. The varied phrases used to describe quality dates are viewed by the public as an indication of food safety. In reality, these labels are recommendations for when a product will be of optimal quality and flavor, meaning that the food is still safe and wholesome for a considerable amount of time after the date on the label.

A study conducted by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2019 found that 84 percent of survey participants threw out food when it was near the package date, "at least occasionally." Additionally, 37 percent "always" or "usually" discarded food near the date. In 2017 voluntary industry standards for date labeling were introduced, promoting the phrase "Best if Used By" for foods that carry less of a food safety risk and indicate a product's perceived quality. As for foods where safety is a concern, "Use by" labels reflect health risks.

The standardization and expansion of federal regulations of food labels in tandem with consumer education campaigns will further reduce food waste.

America's love affair with unblemished, perfectly shaped, and brilliantly hued produce is generating unnecessary food waste. It accounts for roughly six billion pounds of unharvested or unsold food a year. The unrealistic cosmetic standards for food are the driving force behind the mass production of fruits and vegetables. This, in effect, forces farmers to rely on chemical inputs and unusual production techniques that compromise the taste of our food.

After food is scrapped from our plates and taken from our trash bins, the majority of it is dropped off at a landfill. In the United States, food waste accounts for 22 percent of municipal solid waste, the largest portion of waste in our landfills. Over time the food decomposes and emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas with higher heat-trapping ability than carbon dioxide. A team of researchers at Project Drawdown published a comprehensive blueprint of ways to mitigate and reverse global warming. Their study revealed that food waste contributes 4.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year, nearly eight percent of anthropogenic emissions.

Unused food not only contributes to climate change, but it is also an enormous waste of resources, including but not limited to water, fertilizer, seed, land, energy, financial capital, and labor. An estimated 21 percent of water, 18 percent of farmland, and 19 percent of fertilizer in the United States are used on food that never reaches our table. These precious resource inputs also have significant ecological footprints and should be used sparingly to deliver usable calories. Not to mention, the mismanagement of food waste and dumping in landfills routinely victimizes people of color due to the disproportionate siting of unwanted land uses near black and Latino communities.

Food waste is a convoluted and multi-faceted systemic issue, but it is not irreconcilable. Hunger relief organizations have partnered with industry leaders to recover forgotten food and supply food banks across the states. Entrepreneurial ventures up-cycle food scraps and create new uses out of overlooked byproducts. Cities across the country have supported organics collection programs to transform waste into nutrients and energy.

In order to close the food loop in the coming years, policymakers will be tasked with writing regulations improving the provision of and management of food in the marketplace, society will need to shift its cultural understanding of food and the norms surrounding it, and new innovative waste management technologies will need to be funded and subsidized. There is still much to be done, but it's not too late to start at your own kitchen table. An easy way to minimize waste right in your own home is by planning out meals, shopping accordingly, and preparing appropriate portions. When food is left over, pop it in the fridge or freezer and save it for next time.

When you do create food waste, consider using composting services. Some cities and municipalities offer curbside compost pick-up. You could also learn how to compost in your own backyard. This reduces food waste that ends up in landfills and can provide you with fertilizer for a home garden.

What you eat is a humanitarian issue. In the fourth lesson, we learned about how food waste is created and how you can decrease your food waste to prevent harm to the environment.

In our next lesson, we'll learn about your carbon footprint.

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Written by

Alexa Bussmann