It’s a typical Saturday night at our downtown restaurant. I stand behind the bar, gazing out over the restaurant floor as the staff frantically zips around in a dance of controlled chaos. Meanwhile, the guests are focused on the plates before them — locally farmed ingredients that are artfully crafted into entrées upward of $30. Yet, despite the price, many of them won’t finish their plates, and even fewer will take their leftovers home with them.
In fact, more times than not, I find myself carrying half-full plates to the garbage in the back. The remaining food is quickly scooped off without a second thought, where it will add to the increasing amount of edibles squandered in this country.
As a society, we are wasteful. Actually, we are very wasteful. According to Jonathan Bloom, author of “American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It),” we throw away close to 40 percent of our entire food supply. What does that amount to, exactly? Picture the Rose Bowl, a 90,000-seat stadium in Southern California. Now, visualize it filled to the brim with food — we throw away that much every single day. What’s worse is that this number is nearly 50 percent more than it was 40 years ago, and it continues to grow.
It’s not that we, as a society, are intentionally wasteful. But when buying food, whether it’s at the grocery store or a restaurant, we focus on its pricing as we marginalize it into a percentage of what we can afford. So, when that head of broccoli doesn’t get cooked, or the chicken breasts start to smell foul, or our leftovers get pushed to the back of the fridge, we chalk it up to a few dollars lost. Our wallets will recover, right? But what we fail to realize is the full monetary cost of food waste, which adds up to a whopping 165 billion dollars. Annually.
Here’s the thing: As consumers, many of us don’t take into account the true cost of squandering food beyond a dollar standpoint. There’s actually a tremendous amount of energy that goes into yielding, harvesting, transporting, and preserving it. We don’t consider that by wasting food, we also waste resources like fresh water, fossil fuels, and energy. Moreover, the decomposing food in our landfills contributes to the global-warming problem by creating methane, a greenhouse gas with 20 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.
According to Bloom, the amount of edibles that ends up in landfills uses approximately 300
million barrels of oil per year, and 25 percent of the entire supply of fresh water — that’s enough fresh water to fill Crater Lake twice. To put it in perspective, half of an uneaten burger wastes enough water to take a shower for more than an hour. This comes at a time when huge agricultural states like California and Texas are experiencing some of their worst droughts in modern history. When we don’t eat what we have, those resources are used in vain.
So, the question begs, why is so much food being tossed, and what can actually be done to change it?
Unfortunately, food waste happens at many different stages of production, from fluctuating food prices that force farmers to leave unsellable crops to rot in the fields to retailers who throw out food based purely on visual flaws. The majority of waste, however, happens on the home front — at the hands of uneducated consumers and retailers with a lack of understanding about when products go bad. Without this knowledge, edible meats, dairy, and fresh items are discarded, and perfectly good produce is tossed because it may have a soft spot or some other superficial defect. Additionally, retailers want to provide as many options to us as possible. Yet, because many of these products have strict sell-by dates to protect retailers from the potential liability of harmful foods, much of what is still edible goes to the landfills instead of consumers.
At home, many of us obey the same sell-by-date rule in regard to food as retailers do. But, according to Bloom, sell-by dates serve more as indicators of peak freshness rather than as expiration dates. Most of us mistakenly believe that these indicate how safe the food is to consume when, actually, they aren’t related to the risk of food poisoning or food-borne illness.