Serena Chen (‘19)
With a flick of the wrist and a swoop of your fork, you expertly scrape that wilted, cardboard-tasting salad into the trash without a second thought. This scenario likely occurs multiple times a week, adding up to 51,600 pounds of food wasted per person over their lifetime and equating to disposing twenty-four whole turkeys a year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization and the James Beard Foundation.
While we may not realize it, the food that we toss in the trash eventually comes back to bite us. Food waste is the second biggest contributor to landfills and wreaks havoc on the environment, producing methane emissions as they biodegrade. One researcher estimated that in the first years before a landfill is capped (filled and then covered with a plastic sheet), food waste produces 90 percent of the landfill’s methane emissions. The issue lies in the fact that methane is at least 25 times more impactful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide when it comes to causing global warming. So, the ramifications of our trashed food include raising global temperatures, engendering natural disasters and extreme weather events, raising sea levels, and increasing air pollution.
It can be easy to pity those victims of the numerous natural disasters that have recently ravaged America like Hurricane Harvey or Irma. But don’t you feel uncomfortable realizing that we, and our food waste, play a role in driving these deadly cataclysms?
Additionally, methane from our food waste raises global temperatures, creating the prime conditions for mosquitoes and perpetuating one of the world’s most deadly diseases: malaria. In order to truly decrease the high death tolls of third-world countries, we must realize that global warming, bolstered by our food waste, lies at the heart of the problem.
Not only is food waste detrimental to the environment, but it also has an effect on our pocketbooks. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) of the United States states that food waste accounts for an annual loss of 165 billion dollars. American households waste 15 to 25 percent of food purchased, an act which is synonymous to visiting the supermarket, paying for four bags of groceries and tossing one in the trash! Instead of worrying about the cost of taxes, Americans should pay attention to the real cost: their wasted food.
The issue of food waste is America’s most egregious irony: while forty percent of food produced goes uneaten, one in six Americans is without a constant food supply. Researchers predict that a mere 15 percent reduction in food waste, aside from benefiting the country financially, could feed 25 million Americans. At a time when multitudes of Americans go hungry, diverting the waste to those in need is imperative.
Our wasted food’s contribution to global warming cannot be ignored. The food we throw away is devastating our planet and slowly killing us. Food waste is an urgent issue that concerns you, me, and everyone else on our planet. Fortunately, there are numerous actions that can be taken to lessen our impact on the environment.
One effective method to reduce food waste is by purchasing ugly food. The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that among all food groups, fresh fruits and vegetables produce the highest amounts of waste. Over fifty percent of fruits and vegetables are lost throughout their life cycle, most notably during post-harvest in the form of culling, when produce is removed from production on the basis of size, color, weight, and Brix (sugar content) standards. Many farmers, however, believe that produce guidelines are unnecessarily stringent; one stone fruit and grape packer reported that twenty to fifty percent of his unmarketable produce was perfectly edible.
The Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign, initiated by anti-waste activist Jordan Figueiredo, strives to rescue culled produce. Campaign members post pictures on social media to encourage individuals to support the “ugly food” movement, promoting edible but strange looking produce. For example, one post included a picture of a plum with two small, knob-like growths, paired with the caption “When your plum starts to grow legs so it can get up outta here!” In 2014, Figueiredo hosted the Zero Food Waste Forum supported by Jamie Oliver, and distributed five thousand free lunches made from excess food. Figueiredo petitioned major supermarkets, such as Walmart, Whole Foods, and Target to sell ugly produce. In early 2016, Walmart began marketing cosmetically challenged apples, many with dents and scars. These apples, from the brand “I’m Perfect,” are perfectly edible, but under normal circumstances their cosmetic shortcomings would condemn the fruit to a toss into the landfill.
This campaign provides a direct opportunity for us all to rescue edible food that would have never made it to supermarkets. “Ugly” fruit and vegetables are less expensive than regular produce, but taste just as fresh. Instead of spending hours at the supermarket pedantically nit-picking at the most frivolous blemishes on fruit and vegetables, it is time to look past produce’s cosmetic differences and to “shop ugly!”
Another major portion of food waste comes from households, restaurants, and dining halls, largely due to food spoilage and over-preparation. However, food preparation in households across the country could be radically benefitted by employing methods such as shopping for the correct amount of ingredients according to tried and true recipes, and composting food scraps. If families shop for food according to recipes that their family enjoys, food waste will be reduced because the entire meal will likely be consumed without any waste. Consider the practices taken by the dining hall of The Lawrenceville School, a private high school in New Jersey. According to Gary Giberson, Founder and President of the school’s sustainable dining program, following each meal, chefs complete a spreadsheet cataloging details about the meal, including portions prepared, portions remaining, and portions served, essentially looking for the meals that students tend to finish completely. “[The information from the spreadsheets] is the driving factor…to purchase the food so we buy what we need and not more than [what is needed],” says Giberson.
Lawrenceville School’s approach can be duplicated within households, significantly decreasing the amount of food waste produced. When a meal with a serving size of four is served to a family of four, one can almost guarantee that very little food waste will be produced. In addition to cataloging ingredients utilized, Lawrenceville provides various segregated waste bins for compostable items, liquids, and trash. At the school farm, hogs consume a vegetarian feed of kitchen scraps, such as vegetable peels, and leftover dairy. Eggshells and coffee grounds from the compost bin are combined with leaves and twigs to create a carbon stockpile that eventually serves as fertilizer for the farm. While not everyone can own a farm in which their food waste could be so effectively managed, Lawrenceville’s other numerous approaches to food waste can be applied to everyday people.
As an avid cook myself, I have noticed just how much waste is produced from meal preparation alone, as carrot tops and vegetable peels add up. Composting is the best alternative to throwing these scraps away. This past summer, I attended a sustainability camp, where us students composted our own food waste. The work was simple.
We merely piled branches and leaves on top of the waste, and the remains were used as fertilizer for the garden later. The experience made me realize the simplicity of repurposing food waste, and how one can turn waste into biofuel. While composting may sound daunting, the process only includes combining organic material (vegetable peels, expired food, etc.) with oxygen and water in a bin, and within a few months, the finished compost pile functions as a fertilizer. Composting guidelines can be easily found online, including on HGTV’s website. Americans can and should play their part in recycling their food waste to preserve the health of the planet.
After researching about food waste in America, I was astounded. I never realized that the often-overlooked impact of our food waste plays a significant role in climate change. As a result, I have frequently stressed to my parents the importance of purchasing only the necessary amounts of produce for recipes. Unwanted vegetables tend to rot in the back our refrigerator, and ultimately land in the trash, but after educating them on various recipes that I like to call “clean out the fridge” recipes, food occupies less and less space in the trash. I also plan on purchasing a compost bin to recycle my family’s food scraps.
At a time when a quarter of our food travels from farm to garbage, and one in six Americans goes hungry, food waste is truly one of the most pressing global issues we face. After researching the issue of food waste, I have gained a new perspective on its impact on climate change, and the necessity (and feasibility) of reversing its effects. Fixing the issue can be as simple as purchasing produce with slight imperfections, or buying only necessary amounts of food, in order to give back to the earth what we have taken away. No longer can we allow the problem to fester and scrape our food off of our plates without a second thought. It is time for all of us to take responsibility for the planet that we call home.
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