In the United States today, 48.8 million Americans—including 16.2 million children— live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. That’s one person in every 6 people. On average, one child out of every five is food insecure, meaning nutritionally adequate and safe food is limited or virtually unavailable to them. In a recent Pew survey, nearly 25% of all Americans struggled to put food on the table, three times the amount in Germany, twice as much as Canada, and roughly on par with Indonesia. Food banks distribute more than 3 billion plates of food each year, and churches, charities, and individuals distribute billions more. Food insecurity is so common that Sesame Street introduced ‘Lily’—a seven-year-old girl muppet who is food insecure.
While our grocery stores are overflowing with vegetables that we can’t even identify, more people are hungry in the United States than the entire population of Canada and Portugal combined.
And yet, we throw away more and more food each year. In a recent Washington Post article, Roberto Fredo writes:
In 2012, the most recent year for which estimates are available, Americans threw out roughly 35 million tons of food, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s almost 20 percent more food than the United States tossed out in 2000, 50 percent more than in 1990, and nearly three times what Americans discarded in 1960, when the country threw out a now seemingly paltry 12.2 million tons.
Yes, companies cause plenty of waste. We should be concerned and saddened by that, but we’re not off the hook. At least 50% of food waste is caused by individual families. Pope Francis might have been thinking of the U.S.’s waste when he said:
“Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of the poor and the hungry.”
In a very real sense, this happens every day with every meal in millions of American households.
How can we, like the rich man in Luke 16, live in clear view of the hungry, in front of 48.8 million Lazarus’ in America, and waste food? We must do better.
Why does this happen?
In my experience, individual food waste happens because of two major factors: (1) unfamiliarity with healthy foods’ natural decay and (2) optimistic shopping. Food waste often happens when people begin to buy healthier. When I intentionally began to buy healthier, unprocessed foods—fresh fruit and vegetables, uncooked meats—I found myself either forgetting about them or throwing them away completely because they had gone bad. I thought they lasted longer because I was used to processed foods. Fresh food does not last as long in your refrigerator because preservatives are not added, so I began to plan meals (more on this later).
Second, food waste happens to us all with optimistic shopping. As Stefon would say, it’s that thing when you want to buy healthy foods to feel good about yourself but end up eating DiGiornio pizza. We definitely wanted to eat that broccoli at some point, but it ends up in the trash because it wasn’t used before it turns several shades of blue. Other factors like fussy kids and government subsidies driving up prices of fresh food also contribute to food waste, but I believe the first two factors generate the largest amount of waste per household.
What can do I need I do?
- Have a weekly meal plan. By this, I don’t mean that you should write down every meal every day (though that’s not a bad idea). I mean that you should have an idea of what you will need to buy before you buy it. This will save you money, time, and energy in the long haul. Think of this like not shopping while hungry. Katie and I don’t write our meals down. We check ingredient lists in the recipes we want to make that week, jot down the ingredients and amounts, and pull the recipe again when it’s time to make it. The most important lesson here is curbing that overbuying tendency many of us have when we walk into the grocery store without a plan.
- Ignore most expiration dates. Expiration dates do not tell you when food is bad. The manufacturer predetermines when a product at its peak quality, and slaps a date on that product. It is very rarely used to determine food safety. Check out eatbydate.com for some helpful advice on individual items to ease your food-related anxieties.
- If something looks like it has gone bad, it may still be good. Certain hard and semi-firm cheeses, yogurts, fruits, and vegetables can be “cleaned” of any mold, bruises, or dark spots and eaten. This is completely safe and natural. Always Google advice before doing this and always seek out a food organization, reputable foodies or a chef for advice, not just some guy on Yahoo! Questions. Additionally, looks do not always tell the story. A wilted green onion is still good to eat; a bruised banana is perfectly fine. Try to see something is salvageable before tossing it out.
- Eat or freeze your leftovers. If you plan out your weekly meals, you should consider having a leftovers day. In many cases, this actually makes the food better. Soups, stews, and sauces will only get better in time. The key here is planning to eat leftovers. They can easily be forgotten and tossed to make room for more food (that will eventually be thrown out—see the cycle?). If you just can’t stand the thought of eating leftovers, try cooking smaller portions by adjusting recipes in half. If you made too much, freeze the leftovers (assuming they’ll reheat okay) and give them away.
There are so many things that we can and should address about food waste— over production and our unsustainable meat industry, our carbon footprint of which food waste is a major factor, government subsidies that drive healthy food options to unreachable prices for the poorest who need it the most, our care for the planet and for our fellow humans including our families, and our own health and wellness just to name a few. Food waste is a serious issue, and we can each take small personal steps to be a part of fixing it.
Simple steps to eliminate food waste in private homes is simple enough—plan, buy less, be aware. While it might not seem like much—just a few ounces or pounds in your own home, here and there—the reality is that 50% of the food waste in this country is from personal homes. Not supermarkets, not restaurants. Homes. My home and your home.
Because of my humanity, I should be mortified and determined to fix this problem. Because of my Christianity, I cannot in good conscious waste food while 48.8 million or my neighbors starve. I cannot continue stealing from the tables of the poor.
If you are interested in doing more, check out some of the links below. In addition, Loving’ Spoonfuls is a Boston-based organization dedicated to saving the ‘bad’ foods from large distributors and donating them to the neediest, a practice termed ‘food rescue.’ Check them out for more info and tips on preventing food waste.
 See the 2013 Harvard study on this here: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/foodpolicyinitiative/files/2013/09/dating-game-IB.pdf