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The Dilemma of Food Waste

I felt myself slightly horrified the other day, while overhearing random conversations in the office. It made me realize a few things too, the generational differences between baby boomers and millennials (I am an elder millennial apparently), and the costs verses waste predicament when it comes to food. What exactly did I over hear?

“I would rather spend $1.97 for 2 gallons of milk and dump out a gallon of milk if I couldn’t drink it before expiration rather than spend$3.00 on 1 gallon of milk.”

The statement struck me with a bunch of mixed emotions. On one hand, I understand the need to spend money wisely. Why buy 1 gallon when you can have 2 gallons for a dollar less? On the other hand, why spend the money and then have to waste half of what you bought because you already know you probably won’t drink 2 gallons of milk in 10 days or less? (Our milk,depending on the fat content, tends to have an expiration date about a week to ten days after purchase.) This individual isn’t providing for a large family to help put this into perspective, so the waste of the item is much higher in probability. So, this led me to my next set of thoughts: how much food do we actually waste, and what are other things we could do in place of dumping something down a drain?

For myself, and my food consumption habit, I try hard to only buy what I need. I am mindful of costs, but if I don’t need the bulk sale price on something, I tend to buy the more expensive item. I think part of this has to deal with the amount of time I’ve spent studying landfills and understanding that most of our wastes ends up being placed in a landfill, which in turn diminishes our capacity for future waste collection. Most of my focus has always been on recycling and such, so I’ve never really dived into the implications of food waste or tried to develop an understanding behind it and what kinds of better practices might be out there. It’s always been one of those topics that I’ve been aware of subconsciously, but never wanted to directly acknowledge in any developed concept.

Boy did I find myself a rabbit hole to explore.

From multiple sources in my course of research, we waste about 40% of the food out there, with the United States making up a bulk of that number. In developing countries, this is a loss during harvest and processing, whereas in developed countries, this loss occurs at a consumer level. We have families that struggle to put food on the table, so the thought that 40% of food being wasted while nearly 1 in 8 families can’t feed themselves, feels pretty shameful. Ninety-four percent of this waste ends up in our landfills, which equates roughly to 37.6 million tons of food waste (or 1,165.6 billion gallons if that’s easier to picture). In some of my research, food waste has also been linked to an increase in waste plastic, which has become a hot button issue in recent years because of most plastics inability to biodegrade.

I am not perfect by a long shot when it comes to being optimal in my food usage and trying not to waste. I’ve thrown out my share of purchased fruit and vegetables, along with leftovers and the like. So the next question I asked myself: how could I do better?

There is an abundance of resources out there if you want to be a smarter consumer. Some of the tips I noted (and some that I do already),is cleaning and storing fruits and vegetables immediately after purchase to extend their shelf life (glass containers versus plastic makes a really huge difference on shelf life along with storing either at room temperature or in the refrigerator). Food donation programs that are nearby, like a food bank or a soup kitchen, are another good choice for donating things that you won’t eat. I could actually see myself buying those two gallons of milk and immediately taking one of them over for donation. Since the fiancé went vegetarian, I am actually planning on taking most of our frozen meat for donation since I’m not cooking meat at home. One other thing is composting. This is one of my future dreams to be able to do because some things don’t keep nearly as long as I would like (lettuce) and I have always wanted to move towards being able to sustain myself on my own garden.

The average person wastes approximately 209 to 253 lbs of food a year. If I could find a way to reduce my amount of waste, I think I would feel pretty accomplished for that year.

If others are interested in digging deeper into this rabbit hole, here’s a few links of interests:

End Hunger
EPA: Reducing Wasted Food
Food and Agriculture Organization

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