Clearly, our effort at capturing food waste at the curb is admirable. Although we are “end-of-life” materials management professionals, there is convincing evidence that we should be advocating for solutions that minimize the losses before food reaches the disposal phase. Surely, redirecting excess food to those in need would be more sustainable. By building a new infrastructure before attacking the root cause, we are destined to perpetuate food waste generation by providing the same absolution for excess consumerism as did recycling. With food, there is much more at stake.
We can probably agree that, ultimately, the purpose and goal of food production is to ensure adequate nutrition to each person. To evaluate performance, analysts use some common metrics. These include yield, quality, preservation, distribution and, most recently added to the list, waste. The United States scores relatively high for much of these criteria. In areas where it does not, particularly wasted food, the data is alarming. While numbers tell part of the story, looking at the data in context with cultural and societal factors may provide added insight.
Feeding a Community
To Native Americans, the full moon in August symbolized the time when the fields and forests began offering up their bounty. Equally symbolic was the autumnal equinox, which was a sign that the soil was “dying” and would have nothing left to yield. During harvest, the communal objective was to recover as much food as possible to carry the entire tribe through the winter. The equinox reinforced the importance of balance and equality. Of course, once gathered, the expectation was to preserve the bounty. Whether dehydrated, smoked, hung in lodges or sequestered in cellars, each morsel was valued. Waste was not an option. Both agricultural communities, as well as those of the complex hunter gatherers, held similar beliefs. Harvest culminated in a feast of celebration and thanks in late September or October.
In stark contrast to the conservation and resourcefulness of indigenous people, we now waste much of the food available for consumption. In fact, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) claims Americans waste 50 percent more food today than we did in the 1970s. Losses occur throughout the food chain, and various studies measure some but not other points. NRDC compared the top five studies. By extrapolating the data with reasonable overlap and consistencies, NRDC concluded that from the point of production (the farm) to the consumer (the fork), we lose at least 40 percent of food that could be consumed. Consequently, this food fails to achieve its purpose of nourishing people.
While Native Americans sought food primarily for caloric value, it seems we find the appearance of our fruits and vegetables to be of higher priority. Much like Photoshop influenced our views of a desirable body image, photographic enhancement in advertising also affects our perception of how carrots, tomatoes, etc., ought to look. Responding to our preferences, grocers demand nothing but pristine-looking produce from growers. In turn, to meet the contractual specifications, growers over plant and abandon the rejects. There are a lot of variables that make it difficult to pinpoint the amount lost at the source of production. It differs by the crop, the weather, market pricing, etc. However, this much we know. Entire fields often go unharvested, sometimes because there are simply not enough laborers. As much as 75 percent of some crops may be rejected because of appearance alone. Severe weather conditions resulting from climate change has upped the risk of losing an entire crop.
The same happens with other perishables, whether the nutritional quality truly is or is not affected.
Grocers discard produce at the first sign of blemish or over ripening. Packaged products are removed from the shelves based on manufacturer suggested dates. It's estimated that one in seven truckloads of perishable items delivered to a grocery store is thrown out. That is approximately 10 percent of what they purchase.
To quickly move what is stocked, grocers run specials. As consumers, we take the bait, both because we can afford the purchases and because we have proper storage capabilities.
We have access to more sophisticated food preservation methods than our predecessors; 23 percent of all homes have two refrigerators. Our average total refrigerated storage capacity per home is 60 to 70 cubic feet. We stock these appliances fully, and then, depending on the study, dispose 40 to 60 percent of the food purchased for consumption. Interestingly, folks who eat healthy diets waste the most food.
Limited Access and Choices
As for balance and equality, our current food distribution system not only fails to sustain the most vulnerable among us, it renders them more so. The United States has the highest child poverty rates—25 percent—in the developed world. The poverty rates for Native American children who reside on reservations are strikingly higher. Despite living in a nation that continues to produce higher crop yields per acre, one in four Native Americans living on reservations lack consistent access to affordable, nourishing food. This is emblematic of the food insecurity experienced by a growing portion of the U.S. population with incomes less than $2 per day, and thus living in extreme poverty.
The now iconic pictures of Interstate 40 inundated by post-Hurricane Florence floodwaters was used to illustrate how Wilmington, N.C., had no access to the outside world. For a day or two, photos of the storm victims were shown lined up at a Waffle House and convenience stores, the only source of food available at the time. Imagine what life would be like if these conditions were the norm. Those with low incomes, the homeless and the elderly often live in neighborhoods in which fresh, nutritious food is rarely available, and the price is prohibitive. Consequently, their diets are high caloric but nutritionally poor. The simultaneous result is obesity with all its health complications and malnourishment, which exacerbates the problems.
The Contemporary Harvest
For most of us, gathering food is no longer an intensive effort. It simply means taking a trip to the local grocer. Lacking personal sweat equity in food production, we’ve distanced ourselves from the realities of the process. Our agrarian experience is limited to an occasional trip to a county or state fair. There might be an annual visit to an idyllic farm where we pick apples, wander through a pumpkin patch or find our way out of a corn maze. The ambitious few may be gardeners.
This brief exposure to small farms can distort our perceptions of contemporary agriculture. Quirks in how family farms are accounted for in government statistics add to the confusion. Both belie the fact that the bulk of our major crops are grown by fewer but quite larger operations. When it comes to serious crop production, the trend is toward aggregating regional acreage into one massive farming unit. These operations have a paper trail of land ownership and leases designed to meet the criteria used to define “family farms.” In all other aspects, however, they are run like any other corporate agribusiness.
Due to contemporary farming practices, the U.S. average yield per acre is four to six times greater now than in 1900 for wheat, corn and soybeans. Sadly, these successful techniques have a downside. Largescale farming places high demands on water resources. It is intensively petrochemical dependent from diesel-powered equipment and heavy reliance on fertilizers and pesticides. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have increased by approximately 17 percent since 1990 and now account for 9 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. A study from Harvard University shows that high CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels significantly reduce essential nutrients in wheat, rice, maize and soybeans.
With no personal vested interest in the growth and distribution system, our wasted food seems of little consequence. In a society built upon single-use disposable items and planned obsolescence, food wastefulness is easier to overlook. Even though we acknowledge that food waste is counter to good household economics, we are largely numb to its effects on the environment, and on public health. We miss the point that regardless of whether food is or isn’t consumed, ultimately, the same resources are spent in its production. For foods wasted by the consumer add to the impact of packaging, transport, refrigeration and disposal to the cost of production.
We all pay more for these mistakes. Those who can least afford it are affected most negatively.
To learn more about upstream solutions, reach out to these organizations: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Rethink Food Waste through Economics and Data, Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., Feeding America and United States Department of Agriculture.
Michele Nestor is the president of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.