From Conundrum to Clarity

IMG_20160819_170100599Earlier this month I stopped by my local produce market, which is always chock full of pristine fruits and vegetables, and noted this imperfectly-shaped eggplant among its perfectly-sized and shaped brethren.  And while it was certainly a candidate for Jordan Figueirido’s ugly fruit and vegetable campaign, I decided to leave it and see if it was purchased by a not-so-particular consumer.  I returned a few hours later to find this misshapen eggplant still there; I’m hoping (although not confident) that it was purchased later rather than being discarded.  At the same time, I also noted a large pile of green peppers on the brown side — still good, but not visually perfect — and definitely out of the ordinary for this location.  They clearly weren’t getting any takers, and since this store hasn’t yet developed a discounted product line for imperfect produce, I have a strong suspicion that all of those peppers were discarded.

Our predilection for perfect produce is but one of many reasons that lead us to waste immense amounts of food annually in this country — on the order of 130 billion pounds (about 1/3 of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels) according to Jean Buzby and her USDA team — with a value of about $160 billion.

Couple that wastage with the excessive levels of hunger in America, where nearly 50 million citizens (about 15% of the population, many of them children and seniors) live in poverty and our wasteful behavior appears irrational.  Add in multiple other negatives of food waste, including air and water pollution and the opportunity cost of wasted resource inputs, and it is clearly nonsensical.  The fact that we continue to waste so much food has long been a conundrum; and it is high time that we transitioned from conundrum to clarity on the gravity of the food waste problem in order to advance meaningful, national efforts to put our food to responsible use.

But let’s back-up a step.  A key to that effort involves restoring the degree to which we value food.  History, and especially our grandparents, can teach us important lessons in that regard, born from necessity associated with resource scarcity.  Periodicals from the War years were full of motivational advertisements developed by the government encouraging the responsible use of food.  Food was described as a “weapon” and as “fighting strength” – a resource that would “win the War.”  Individuals were encouraged to “lick the platter clean,” “share food,” “preserve food,” and “make food go all the way.”  In a wartime environment such admonitions were clearly understood, and they were followed, shaping the values and behavior of that generation.

Today, however, those values are noticeably absent, replaced by a fixation with convenience and saving time that leads to excessive waste.  We live in a throwaway economy where portions of items are used with the remainder immediately discarded, and food is no exception.  Wasted food occurs everywhere in the U.S., at all stages of the food supply chain – from farm to distributor to retailer to our homes.  Just two generations removed from the War years, we have quickly moved from a culture of responsibility regarding our food to a culture of abundance.

How did we get here?  A few key reasons stand out:

Abundance:  Food is everywhere – in vast quantities, in overflowing displays, and in multiple packaging formats.  It is available at all hours, and in great variety.  It is not only abundant, it is beautiful – perfect in size, shape, and color – and we expect nothing less.

Emphasis on Freshness:  It is also extremely fresh.  This theme reverberates through the supply chain.  Retailers want to be known as having the freshest items; continually culling fruits and vegetables with minor blemishes and discarding prepared foods beyond designated time windows.  On the farm, produce deemed “too ripe” (i.e. with limited shelf life) will often simply be plowed under by growers.  In our homes, consumer confusion over freshness date labels (best by, sell by, use by, best before, etc.) and a “when in doubt, throw it out” mentality fuels additional food discards.

Low Cost:  Our food is relatively inexpensive, indeed considered “cheap” by most of the world — although that cheapness is artificial as many of the true costs involved in the production of our food (e.g. subsidies and environmental costs) are not borne by the producers.  That perception has created a system in which consumers are quick to discard food nearing shelf-life dates for fear of sickness, while retailers act similarly due to fear of liability exposure and reputational risk.  Such a mindset is easy because in much of the country trash is easy, and disposal to landfill is relatively inexpensive.

Lack of knowledge/connectivity:  For decades, millions of home and community gardeners were blessed with excess produce but lacked knowledge of both the great need for that food across the country and the local agencies where it could be taken and put to best use.  Where donation connections were publicized, they tended to emphasize processed food in jars, cans, and boxes, and not fresh fruit and vegetables, for ease of storage and distribution.  Similarly, larger farmers and growers often had excess produce on hand, but passed up the opportunity for donations due to lack of knowledge of, or lack of access to, relief agencies in need and/or effective gleaning teams to harvest the excess food.  Concerns over operational disruption and/or liability fears further suppressed the incentive to donate.  In short, these constraints reinforced the notion that produce was abundant, and easily discarded or plowed under.

Not surprisingly, the combination of all of these themes – abundance, perfection, low cost, freshness premiums, consumer confusion, cheap disposal options, and lack of connectivity – has led to an alarming amount of wasted food which really shouldn’t be viewed as “waste” at all but instead as a valuable resource to be unlocked for the benefit of people and planet.  Myriad factors related to production and distribution (including weather, pests, machinery damage, package damage, transportation delays, supply and demand variability, etc.) result in additional losses (Kantor, et al. 1977).  We need to re-set this situation, yet it’s particularly concerning to note that estimates of food waste have been on the rise.  A 1977 government study estimated that 20% of the food produced for consumption in the U.S. was lost annually.  A study twenty years later put that figure at 27%, while recent estimates are in the 30-40% range.  Obviously a disconcerting trend when one considers the accompanying technological gains over the same period.  Further, a recent landmark report by Tim Fox and IMECHE estimated that food waste and loss across the globe could be as high as 50% annually.  Such inefficiency is staggering.  What business enterprise could survive with that level of waste?

The consequences of food waste are serious – socially, morally, environmentally, and financially.  At the most basic level, by wasting food we miss the opportunity to feed people – our neighbors – and therefore miss the ability to spread goodwill and build community.  Today, hunger is largely an issue of nutrition, and by discarding fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meat proteins, we deprive those in need of the high-quality calories that they need most for good health.  With more than one-third of the adult U.S. population now obese, and the estimated annual medical costs of obesity at roughly $150 billion, the potential to improve nutritional intake for people experiencing nutrient deficiency by redirecting excess high-quality food to relief agencies is enormous.  In fact, wasted fruit can be viewed as “the low-hanging fruit” in this arena.

Wasted food also significantly harms the environment.  Food that decomposes in landfills creates methane gas, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows has more than twenty times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide.  Wasted food also consumes limited landfill space and leads to water pollution through run-off.

Notably, wasted food involves the waste of all of the resources that went into producing it in the first place – water, fertilizers and pesticides, fuel, and all of the associated human capital and labor.  Together, the environmental harm and the wasted resource inputs associated with food waste carry great financial cost.  Further, some reports note that the U.S. spends another $1 billion annually just to haul excess food away.

Hunger.  Health.  Environment.  Economy.  Food waste traverses all of these themes.  As such, it is more than an issue of food security – it is an issue of national security.  Reducing wasted food and redirecting those food assets to other positive uses is a challenge, but also an enormous opportunity – one that not only feeds people, improves health, benefits the environment, and saves money, but also one that has the potential to bring communities closer together.  It’s an opportunity that we can ill afford to miss.

Broadly, food waste is a simple issue to get behind, and from a solutions-standpoint, that’s fortunate.  After all, who would argue that more food waste is a good thing?  With rising awareness of the social and environmental benefits to reducing food waste, and the growth in technology-based solutions to facilitate redistribution of excess food, it is now much easier for the average individual to act responsibly regarding food.  The real challenge is largely cultural – changing mindsets and values broadly and deeply enough such that minimizing food waste is the expectation among all of the players in the food system.  And viewed in conjunction with pressing themes of hunger, health, environment, economy, community, and security, it’s clear that achieving that cultural shift is more than just an admirable goal.

This post draws on material from a longer article co-written with Lauren Goldberg and Gary Oppenheimer and published in the Huffington Post.  To read the entire article, which is part of the Huffington Post’s “Reclaim” effort to increase awareness on food waste, see this link.

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