The issue of food waste is not just one here in Seattle—it’s a nationwide issue that starts with the way we produce food and only becomes more of a problem as food finds its way to consumers. John Oliver recently dedicated a segment of his show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to this growing problem (Warning: It’s John Oliver, so be prepared for your facts to come served with a sprinkling of obscenity and a hearty side portion of dark humor). This caught the attention of many media sites, which is great news! The more people who become aware of this problem, the more we can do to change it. Here are some of the highlights of his 17 minute segment.
In 2012, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported “40% of the food in the United States today goes uneaten.” The USDA’s (United States Department of Agriculture) Economic Research Service 2010 data puts the national percentage at a more conservative 31%. Roughly translated, this means that a third of all the food produced in America is wasted.
This alarming amount of waste matters because at the same time, there are many people going hungry across the country. According to the USDA, 49.1 million people lived in food-insecure households in 2013. This waste is not only devastating to families who are hungry, but also the many food programs that can distribute food to others who are in need. I think particularly of the population of people without homes in Seattle who attend meal programs and the benefits they receive from fresh donated food. Our campus recently hosted Tent City 3 (TC3 for short), and the times that I visited their kitchen it was stocked with food donations. Without donations many people go hungry, both locally in Seattle, and nationally.
The Bottom Line
Costs can be both a deterrent and an incentive on the different sides of this issue. The cost for producers to harvest foods that they can’t sell at the supermarket often means that pounds of produce end up being tilled under in the fields or thrown away. These foods aren’t sold because they don’t meet the aesthetic standard for the USDA or grocers.
Although it might seem like this “ugly food” would be a great candidate for donation, the costs associated with transporting and harvesting food with little or no financial incentives often prevent producers from donating. There are also some food banks or other nonprofits that won’t accept easily perishable foods because they take longer to process and distribute donations. However, smaller local meal programs could benefit greatly from donations, and donators are legally protected by The Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. This law prevents donors to a nonprofit organization from being held liable, unless purposely donating foods “likely to be harmful to the health or well-being of another person.” This however does not help cut the costs of getting the food to the donation site or the time and coordination to pick up the food. There are tax breaks for larger corporations that donate food, but the tax breaks for smaller businesses, like farms and restaurants, are not permanent tax code. The tax incentive has to be renewed annually, which increases the risk for smaller businesses wanting to set up donation programs.
The cost for consumers is high as well when it comes to food waste. Food waste doesn’t only happen from producers to the super market, but also at home. Whether it is from foods that go bad or just aren’t used, consumers waste a lot of food. In the USDA studies, “Two-thirds of this 133-billion-pound loss occurred in homes, restaurants, and other away-from-home eating places…” By minimizing waste on the consumer end, families could save a lot on groceries and prevent food from going into the landfill.
“Sell by dates” –Not Safety Dates
The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA states that “Except for infant formula, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations” and while there might be state laws, “There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States.” Washington’s laws require specifics about what the label should include, and that safe handling instructions are required, but not “sell by” or “use by”dates. These sell by dates are particularly convincing on meatand dairy products. No one wants to drink sour milk or eat rancid meat, but what most people don’t know is that food quality has more to do and less to do with dates on packaging. “If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can grow and, if pathogens are present, cause foodborne illness — before or after the date on the package” (emphasis added). This means that we are wasting potentially still usable food based on fear or safety, when the dates are arbitrarily decided or inaccurate with when the food will actually go bad. The best way to know if food has gone bad is to check with your eyes and nose. If a food develops an off odor, flavor, or appearance, or if you know that it has been mishandled, don’t use it.
To wrap it up, John’s tips for everyone at the end of his segment include, “resolving to eat uglier fruit, to taking expiration dates with a pinch of salt, to no longer worrying about getting sued by high powered lawyers representing the hungry, and we all have to address our relationship with food waste…”
Be on the lookout for my next post which will include some of the ways people are working to fight this huge problem. Their creative solutions are creating win-win-win scenarios for producers, consumers, and vendors. Post questions and comments below!