The news is packed with headlines aghast at the recent report that Americans waste 40 percent of their food. Many are springing into action to connect food banks and shelters with restaurants, or find creative ways to compost or biofuel the leftovers. I’ve also seen reminders to “eat what you purchased.” Consumers are feeling guilty and to blame.
My immediate response was, “Oh, Lord.” We have an obesity problem and now we are whooping up on people to quit wasting food. The NBC News webpage I viewed on this story also showed an ad for “Tip for a tiny belly,” with a cartoon woman grabbing at her stomach flab. Bill Briggs, the NBC News contributor, led his article with, “Mom was onto something. Americans are not cleaning their plates. Instead, they are tossing away 40 percent of their meals…” God, help us.
Before I jumped to conclusions (and I was gearing up for a good leap), I found the original report authored by Dana Gunders of the National Resources Defense Council, titled “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” I wanted to answers a few questions before I climbed up on my usual soap box.
Question 1: What’s the make-up of the wasted food? Is it a smorgasbord going on the trash heap? Or is it mostly produce — all the stuff we are supposed to be eating and just aren’t? I know I’ve done my fair share of optimistically purchasing leafy greens and colorful vegetables only to watch them rot in the refrigerator drawer (grocery store optimism is usually fleeting, whereas my love of pastries and baked goods persists). I wondered if the wasted food pile was sprawling with doughnuts, cinnamon raisin bread, waffles, bacon, and cheddar biscuits. My suspicions were correct; an info graphic on page six of the report (which includes “North America” — the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — how they called all that North America I have no idea) lays out the steps of the food supply chain (production losses; postharvest, handling and storage losses; processing and packaging losses; distribution and retail losses; and consumer losses which included out-of-home consumption) and percentages of food lost by category (grain products; seafood; fruits and vegetables; meat; milk). For the most part, fruits and vegetables along with seafood are the highest percentage items wasted. Grain products hit the high percentage at the consumer process step.
Question 2: Who is doing the wasting? If you just listen to the sound bites, you’d assume it’s evil, oblivious consumers blindly tossing unappreciated food items in the bin to the tune of 40 percent of our food supply. According to the study that sparked this outcry, consumers are wasting 25 percent of their total purchases (last step in the supply chain), which is not the whole 40 percent of the amount wasted. And of the wasted purchases, 41 percent of those are fresh fruits/vegetables and dairy — not Twinkies. The study places the blame on spoilage, confusion over label dates (best by and use by), and general undervaluation of cheap foods. We, the evil consumer, are not thumbing our nose at the bounty of our food. We’ve been scared to death by other news blurbs on E. coli, listeria, and mad cow.
If we merely react to news blurbs condemning “Americans waste 40 percent of their food,” we will continue to force down those 1,500-calorie mega burgers to avoid food-waste guilt. Worse, people who already struggle to push away from oversized meals will now have a cozy reason to snuggle on up to the chili-cheese fries and polish off what should go down the garbage disposal. Yes I said it — some food needs to go straight down the disposal.
Most of the waste in the food supply chain is happening upstream from the consumer. The only obligation I see, as a consumer, to decrease food waste is to purchase less — buy what you need. The point of waste is not standing over the trash can disposing of a case of Redi-wip you didn’t need in the first place. The point of waste was when you bought it. Don’t add to the problem by “wearing the waste” to boot.
Before we all start the self-flagellation over wasted food, we’d be better off spending that time and energy convincing the food industry (huge as it is) to quit making so dang much. We’ve got food oozing out of every market segment, checkout counter, sidewalk stand, and kitchen cabinet in the country. Oozing so much it’s spilling over the tops of our pants. How can we be 66 percent (plus) overweight/obese, but be wasting 40 percent of our food?
I’ll let ya just think on that one.
• NSCA certified personal trainer Shannon Sorrels has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and an MBA. Her Ahwatukee-based company, Physix LLC, works with Valley individuals and groups to improve their overall fitness. Reach her at (480) 528-5660 or visit www.azphysix.com.