Food Waste: Throwing Away More Than Food

“As much as 40% of all the food produced in the United States never gets eaten according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council… Americans throw away $165 billion dollars worth of food every year. That’s about 20 pounds per person, every month… The US Department of Agriculture says Americans throw away enough food every year to fill 730 football stadiums… US per capita food waste has increased by about 50% since 1974.” John Oliver just taught me so much about food waste in America. This is basically a recap of the episode. If you have time to watch it, he’s much funnier than I am! If not, here are some things I learned, plus some experiences and research he inspired me to share.

We’re throwing away that much food while at the same time, according to the USDA, “in 2013, 49.1 million Americans lived in food-insecure households.”

Throwing away this food not only keeps it from hungry families, it results in landfills creating methane gas, wasted money we spent to buy the food, wasted money paid to the people who grew it, and wasted water and resources used to make the food. For example, throwing away one egg wastes 55 gallons of water.

Some food is thrown away because we usually won’t buy the last few fruits or veggies because we think the last options have something wrong with them. But if it’s made it as far as getting on a shelf, it has already passed strict USDA standards for pretty produce. So there is most likely not anything wrong with the lonely, pretty produce on the shelf. Where does the non-pretty produce go? It’s labeled “#2 Produce” by the USDA and as soon as that happens, “It can lose 2/3 of its market value to a farmer.” So it usually goes into the trash.

Also, confusing food-date labels cause many people to throw food out before it’s gone bad. “Except for baby food, the federal government doesn’t require any food to have a safety date on it. The states have varied laws about it, with nine states not requiring labels at all.” The food-date labels we see are put on by the manufacturing companies, but aren’t as official as we think. Some could be putting earlier dates to encourage us to buy products more often or to protect themselves from lawsuits. Or some could be putting accurate dates. Either way, “many grocery stores throw out food before its sell-by date.” And they don’t donate it.

I’ve was told in 2008 by friendly employees at Whole Foods that they used to donate food to homeless shelters at the end of each night, but now they don’t because they got sued by homeless people who got food poisoning from their donation. I have repeated their words a few times over the years. I believed them and I think they believed themselves. John Oliver thought that too! But he found out that “there has never been a case where a food donor has been sued.” And he found out that that’s because the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act covers “any food donated to a charity by saying you can not get sued if you make a food donation in good faith.”

But donating costs companies money and time because of overhead like boxing, storing and delivery coordination. Oliver suggests tax breaks to incentivize companies to donate. Large companies already get those tax breaks, but small companies are written into the tax code in a way that Congress has to continually renew their donation tax breaks. So local restaurants and local farms may not know if they will get the break at the end of each year.

In 2015 (when this video was released), the Fighting Hunger Act of 2015 was proposed to make the tax breaks permanent, but it eventually became the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 and all food donation language was removed.

In researching it, it would have increased the deficit by $1.9 billion by 2024. It also gave the same tax breaks to any corporation whose gross income from the business of farming was more than 50% of their gross income. The executive director of the Coalition Against Hunger said the bill didn’t “carefully separate the farmers who would be able to give away more food from big corporations that are just going to get another tax break.”

Nonetheless, it seems like this shouldn’t be tabled and our government should be spending time and energy on finding ways to help small businesses more easily help the hungry in our country.

And there are many other efforts being made to reduce food waste. Smithsonian Magazine said in 2015, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency recently called for a 50-percent reduction in food waste by 2030. Meanwhile, Portland launched a citywide composting program a few years ago, and at the retail level, the former president of Trader Joe’s recently opened a store near Boston that sells surplus food donated by grocery stores at rock-bottom prices.

Even simple changes can have big effects. A few years ago, college cafeterias across the U.S. began to go trayless. Carrying two plates at most rather than trays piled high with all-you-can-serve and all-you-can-eat daredevilry forced students to think about what they really wanted to eat. The seemingly simple move, which more than 120 colleges chose to adopt, helped reduce food consumption and waste by 25 to 30 percent in some colleges.”

Oliver proposes solutions from: “Resolving to eat uglier fruit, to taking expirations dates with a pinch of salt, to no longer worrying about getting sued by high-powered lawyers representing the hungry… We all have to address our relationship with food waste.”

I think the best expiration date decider is my nose.

Also, I found a new company called Imperfect Produce in Los Angeles that can deliver a small box of organic imperfect fruits and veggies to my door for $15-$17. (www.imperfectproduce.com)

And I volunteer at the Hollywood Orchard (www.hollywoodorchard.org), a nearby non-profit that collects free fruit from neighborhood trees and donates it to local charities. Food Forward, Food Finders and many others are in LA. There are also many non-profits across the country like Feeding America who act as delivery-middlemen between food vendors (grocery stores, restaurants) and food providers (soup kitchens, food banks). (Here is a blog where I got to celebrate the joys of Hollywood Orcharding…)

Shane and I also rarely waste our own food. We keep our leftovers at restaurants. And we eat them. We keep other people’s leftovers, with their permission of course. And we eat them. We buy in small, fresh portions from the grocery store and buy in small, fresh portions again. We try to use up what we have, but if we can’t, we compost what is left. We also compost the peels and pits and extra bits that come off of what we do use. We make up new meals with whatever is there. We get it wrong sometimes, but that is part of the freedom of putting our health first. Having fresh food is worth it.

 

We try to eat seasonally and it teaches us that we aren’t in charge. We try to flow with the food and we learn from it. We try to make decisions to live in a way that leaves time to make our meals, go to the store often, chop the contents of our CSA box, and know what is in the fridge, pantry and garden. It’s taken a long time to clear time for that time. But we are grateful for the growth over the years and we’re still growing.

Watering our garden, learning which plants like what amount of light and what kind of soil, learning the organic way to keep pests at bay, watching our garden grow… Picking our own olives and curing them for weeks and weeks… Growing a tree from seed knowing that it won’t make its own fruit for seven years… Learning that you can dip a branch in a hormone powder, stick it in the ground, and it will grow a tree, because plants have and need hormones in order to create just like us… Seeing that the difference between a fertile gerbera daisy seed and a non-fertile one is that the fertile one is swollen… A male butternut squash flower is a cone, but the female is swollen… They can get pregnant like we can. And it takes time for them to bear fruit, just like we do.

And all the beautiful creatures that are involved in making one fruit, the bees, the hummingbirds, the earthworms, the bacteria in the soil, the minerals in the rain water, even the gas from decaying sea plankton that has evaporated into the clouds and rained down has something beneficial for the plants…

When we waste food that goes into a landfill instead of composting back into the circle of food, we waste all of these things. We waste the time, the light, the water, the creatures, our time and energy used to earn the money we wasted to buy it; we waste the nourishment, the extension of our own existence, and the delicious and delightful experience it comes in.

I hope you and your family, or just you, are able to make steps toward enjoying and using each bit of food you have. Thanks John Oliver & Co. for this new knowledge and inspiration.

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Resources:

Food Waste: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver | Episode at top of the page

Fighting Hunger Incentive Act of 2015 Passes House http://www.borgenmagazine.com/fighting-hunger-incentive-act-2015-passes-house/

Why Don’t Some Grocery Stores Donate Food to Poor People http://www.businessinsider.com/why-dont-some-grocery-stores-donate-food-to-poor-people-2014-10

This Is How Much Water You Waste When You Throw Away Food http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-trashing-food-wastes-water-too-180957239/

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