Food waste in the United States

September 25th, 2015

Eulogy for a hamburger

The burger I ate was the best: thick, juicy, and huge. Restraining my impulse to gobble it whole, I saved some to eat later. But I didn’t remember it until a week later. It was at the back of the fridge, soggy and smelly. “Darn, I loved that burger!” I declared — hoping, I guess, my eulogy for the burger might absolve me of guilt as I tossed it into the trash.

That half-eaten burger was a small contribution to an American crisis. Researchers estimate that the United States wastes 30 to 40 percent of its food supply. Some of that food, like my burger, we eat only part or none of before tossing; some never even reaches consumers. But it all confronts us with economic, environmental and ethical challenges.

Sizing up food waste

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), America’s yearly wasted food weighs 133 billion pounds. That’s nearly ten times heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza. It’s “equivalent to filling the Rose Bowl Stadium every day,” writes food critic Laura Reilley. The top three types of wasted food by weight are dairy products (25 billion pounds), vegetables (another 25 billion pounds) and grain products (18.5 billion pounds).

All that wasted food costs a whopping $161.6 billion per year. In a recent survey by the American Chemistry Council, respondents said they waste $640 worth of food per household annually (the federal government puts the cost higher, at $900).

Where does America waste food? Some at grocery stores (about 10 percent); some in restaurants (about 30 percent); but 42 percent is wasted in private homes. The country’s biggest food waster, writes Reilley, is “the buyer of too many BOGOs … the maker of too many big meals  … the cleaner of the back of the fridge. It’s you.”

The United States isn’t the only nation wasting food, but it’s among those wasting the most — and in ever-increasing amounts. According to The Washington Post, the 35 million tons of food we tossed in 2012 marked a 20-percent increase from 2000 and a 50-percent increase from 1990; it’s “nearly three times what Americans discarded in 1960  … [Food is] over a fifth of the country’s garbage.” Comedian John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” quipped, “At this rate, in 40 years when you order pizza from Domino’s, they’ll just deliver it straight to the nearest dumpster. As they should — but that’s not the point!”

One not-so-peachy path

A National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study cites a fruit packer who estimates “20 to 50 percent of the produce he handles is unmarketable but perfectly edible.” So when some peaches from the harvest aren’t big or pretty enough, as determined by processors, they can’t be sold.

Let’s follow a hypothetical peach on its path from orchard to table. We’ll assume it’s sufficiently large and lush-looking to go to market. But how long will its luck hold? During transport to a grocery store, it’s slightly bruised. It’s still fine to eat, but that blemish might doom it for a dumpster upon arrival. Most consumers make appearance the primary factor in produce purchases.

Fortunately, our peach passes inspection and becomes part of a large fruit display — the store’s visual reassurance that it will have plenty of what customers want, when they want it. But now our peach must survive hours of being picked up, sniffed, squeezed, piled on top of or buried beneath other peaches, even dropped. It’s a wonder you buy it after the day it’s had.

One reason you do is the store’s “buy one, get one free” sale. In “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal,” author Tristram Stuart describes how stores use such sales to move surplus inventory. “These [sales] can offer great value,” he allows, but only “if you need what you are actually buying. Instead, what many of us do is take home the 100% extra free and then fail to eat it.”

Maybe you’ll eat our peach immediately; maybe you set it aside, with good intentions of eating it later. It should stay good on your counter for up to three days (keeping it in your refrigerator’s crisper will win it a couple more; freezing it, up to a year). But will that peach reach your stomach before your waste bin? Only you know how this story ends.

How wasted food hurts

The toll that wasted food takes on American checkbooks is finally making us pay more attention to the issue. But wasted food hurts more than our wallets.

Wasted food hurts hungry people. The USDA found that 14.3 percent of American households — one in seven — experienced food insecurity in 2013, “meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” Hunger rates in low-income households, single-parent households, and African American and Hispanic households were above the national average. When so many people need food, an ethical imperative to stop wasting it seems clear. “If we wasted just 15 percent less food,” the NRDC states, “it would be enough to feed 25 million Americans” — right now.

Wasted food also hurts our planet. When we waste food, we waste the natural resources used to produce it. Scientist Dana Gunders, speaking to NPR’s Science Friday, hit me close to home: “When we throw out, say, half a hamburger” — how did she know? — “that’s equivalent to taking over an hour [to] shower, in the water use that was required [to produce it].” And when that burger ends up in a landfill, rotting alongside other rejected food, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide — over three billion metric tons of which were already released in harvesting or manufacturing, moving and marketing the food in the first place. “If food waste were a country,” Roff Smith wrote for National Geographic, “it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the U.S. and China.”

Christians contributing to solutions

As Christians, we pray God will give us daily bread (Matthew 6:11). But can we pray that prayer with integrity if we’re wasting food God has already given? We claim God commands us not to steal (Exodus 20:15). But, as Pope Francis has said, “Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry.” Scripture offers no solace to people who carelessly let crumbs fall from their tables while Lazarus starves on their doorsteps (Luke 16:19-26).

Many Christians are seeking solutions to America’s wasted food crisis. The Society of Saint Andrew, for instance, is an ecumenical Christian nonprofit working to salvage “fresh, nutritious produce from American farms  … that otherwise would be left to rot … [for] agencies across the nation that serve the poor.” At Church of the Pilgrims (Washington, DC), congregants compost their own soil in which to grow vegetables for hungry neighbors. “We have a way of discarding our scraps that is a holy process,” says the Reverend Ashley Goff, “rather than just unconsciously throwing it into the trash can as if it doesn’t matter anymore.”

And food waste is a problem individual Christians can take immediate, practical steps toward solving. We can buy less food and use all of what we buy. We can educate ourselves about the real shelf life of food (“best/sell/use by” dates are more about peak quality as determined by manufacturers than about safety or nutrition). When eating out, we can take leftovers home (half of American diners don’t) and eat or freeze them before they end up like my half-eaten hamburger.

We worship a Savior who called himself bread from heaven, sent to give life to the world (John 6:33). When we eat bread at his Table to remember and feed spiritually on him, may we also remember all who need physical feeding. Nourished by his Spirit, may we change wasteful ways so that, through us, God will answer their prayers for daily bread.

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