Food waste is an insidious problem that just doesn’t make sense. In a world filled with both hunger and obesity, how can we let such a precious commodity as food go to waste? I’ve been pondering this question since learning a bit more about food waste at FoodWorx in Portland last week so I followed up on the topic in this week’s edition of Food Matters.
While at the conference last week I learned some astounding facts and figures, such as: The actual size of our dinner plates has increased by 36 per cent since before 1960, and there’s been an increase in calories in common food items like a piece of pizza, which have grown by 70 per cent.
There were some other stats that I thought were just astounding so I wanted to talk about those and see if we have any Canadian equivalents. First a world stat, from a 2011 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report: One third of all food produced each year is lost or wasted. That’s about 1.3 billion tons of food a year. And it’s not just the food that we bring into our kitchens that’s wasted. In the United States, 40 percent of food is wasted just getting to the consumer, some of it never makes it to the grocery store, some of it doesn’t even make it out of the farmers’ fields. When it does get to the average American home, 25 percent of the food is wasted.
Canadians are pretty bad as well. About 50 percent of the food we bring into our home ends up in the trash, mostly in the form of unwanted leftovers. 9 percent is left in the farmers’ fields, 18 percent lost in packaging and processing, about 20 percent between food retailers and the food service industry.
Why this food goes to waste is a tough question, but the easy answer is because we have too much food. And this really puts the blame for food waste squarely on the denizens of the first world. We’ve done such a good job of making food cheap and plentiful it doesn’t bother us when we waste it. If we had less food available to us maybe we would be a little more careful about it. We’re very picky. Producers throw out thousands of pounds of crops because of imperfections that make them unacceptable to our discerning eyes. We don’t want funny shaped potatoes or apples with a bruise on them. We are also bad at storing our foods properly in the fridge or freezer so we get lots of spoilage. Watch this great Ted Talks feature about the topic by Tristam Stuart here.
I know the numbers on food waste are hard to imagine, but what brought it home to me was the opening scenes of an excellent 2005 documentary called ‘We Feed the World’, by Austrian filmmaker Erwin Wagenhoferd. They show truckloads of all types of perfectly good bread being dumped in the garbage in Vienna, it’s two days old at most. Then we learn that the amount of bread dumped in Vienna every day is roughly equal to what is consumed in Austria’s next largest city.
That’s quite staggering, especially since I’m sure if you asked anyone if they WANT to waste food, they would say no. But as Heather Schmidt of New Seasons Market in Portland said in her talk last week, food waste is not rational. People are fickle, we buy things with good intentions, but then end up letting them languish in the fridge. I’m really good at saving leftovers by putting them in the freezer, but I’m really bad at using them, I just buy more and more fresh food, and then my freezer gets full and I haven’t labeled things properly and some stuff ends up going right into the garbage or compost. Composting is a good way to take care of some of the waste and get improved soil and food production in return. But keep in mind that those scraps were actually grown for human consumption. We put an awful lot of land, energy and water into creating that food, which doesn’t end up being used for its intended purpose. So part of the answer is perhaps lowering the production of food that is just going to be wasted at an earlier level of the food stream.
So how do we cut down on food waste? If you’re talking about the big picture, it could mean calling on your municipal or provincial government representatives to make changes in legislation that would prevent food waste. For example, in BC we have the Food Donor Encouragement Act, which was brought in back in 1997. The act allows companies to donate food that they would otherwise be throwing out as surplus to their purposes, but is still perfectly good to eat, without the fear of being held liable for that food. So, a chain like 7-11 may have sandwiches on the shelf that they get rid of because they’ve reached their best before date, but they really have some life left in them, so they can be picked up and used right away by agencies helping the poor or homeless, same thing for unopened trays of food used at banquets. Anything that can divert food out of the landfill or compost and see it being eaten instead of destroyed.
In our own homes there are lots of things you can do…in the United Kingdom, there’s a movement called Love Food, Hate Waste, organized by a non-profit organization using funding from various government sources. The website helps you figure out portions and how to store foods, and this movement has managed to get UK residents to reduce their food waste by 18 percent in just five years. Heather Schmidt says a 15 percent reduction in food waste in the USA could feed 25 million hungry Americans, so just imagine if we did that around the world…and got our surplus food into the mouths of people who really need it.
Finally I want to recommend a book called An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler, a chef from New York who has really put together a non-cheffy kind of guide to, as the subtitle says, Cooking with Economy and Grace. This is great advice on getting everything out of a whole chicken, vegetable scraps, and even some great uses for orange and lemon peels.