Last week, I spoke about the frightening food scarcity, water shortages and dwindling environmental resources we now face in the current of a rampantly growing population. I also discussed some brand new, tasty and nutritious eating alternatives entering the market, that we’ll soon have to start exploring if we want to overcome this dire situation. Read my eye-opening article from last week, about Where Your Next Burger Will Be Coming From.
But this week, let’s stop focusing on what we’re eating…and let’s take a real hard look at what we’re not.
If you’re like the average North American, then you may be shocked to discover that, without a second thought, you’ve tossed away about 255 pounds of perfectly edible food in the trash can this past year. Likely, because of accidental over-purchasing, overcooking, heaping more food on to your plate than you actually ate, neglected leftovers in the fridge, unclear expiry dates on food packages or actual food spoilage, you are donating an average of about $2,300 of your hard-earned cash every year to corporate grocery store chains around the nation, for no reason aside from adding to city landfills and a growing greenhouse gas problem. Seems like a waste of money, doesn’t it?
And that’s only the beginning of the story. The bigger picture I’m about to share with you reveals a shocking tangle of inefficient policies and wasteful practices built in to every stage of the food industry, all of which drain even more money out of your pocket every year, through hidden costs you don’t even realize you’re absorbing.
I’m about to share a very dirty little secret with you – one that the food industry tries very hard to keep hidden: These standard practices of enormous food waste are secretly maintained in order to keep market prices high. According to the former President of Trader Joe’s, “as a regional grocery manager, if you see a store that has very low waste in its perishables, you are worried.”
Presently, 40 percent of all food grown in the United States winds up in the trash can, while close to half of all food produced around the entire world ends up wasted. That’s 1.3 billion tons of food left uneaten around the world. Instead of that food being used to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry people worldwide, it contributes to nothing more than depleting our natural resources, inflating our food prices, hiking up our tax bills, and the rampant production of harmful greenhouse methane emissions.
Let’s take a look at some of these incredibly shocking practices of waste and inefficiency that occur at every step of our food cycle, forcing you to pay prices that are much higher than they need to be, while also forcing millions of people in the world to go needlessly hungry. I also want to share some things that you can start doing – right now – to save your hard-earned money from going into the trash can as well.
When Farm Fields Fall Out Of Fashion
According to the charitable organization Feeding America, over 6 billion pounds of ripe, healthy, tasty and perfectly edible fruits and vegetables are left un-harvested, unsold, or are discarded because – well – they just aren’t pretty enough. Bent cucumbers, misshapen strawberries, blemished potatoes, split-clove garlic bulbs, Siamese zucchinis, stubby carrots, bruised apples, over-large tomatoes and other such “ugly ducklings” just don’t make the cut of aesthetically conscious food retailers and shoppers, even though they are just as tasty, healthy and nutritious.
In addition, farmers are also forced to leave several fields of particular food crops completely untouched, when market prices are too low that season to justify the costs of harvesting them. These marketing and economic factors are responsible for leaving behind entire fields of unpicked, healthy crops on the farm, as well as heaping piles of good, edible food left to rot in fields, dumpsters and landfills. According to the NRDC, about 20 percent of all fruit and vegetable crops are left behind on the farm; for certain crops, this number is closer to 50 percent during some seasons.
Our Food Market Philosophy: More is More
Of the food that leaves the farms and packing plants, several truckloads of this perishable produce are lost before they even make it to market (due to improper storage temperatures, delays at ports, re-routed shipments, etc). Then, once the food arrives, all items that sustained damage to packaging during bumpy transport are chucked out as well.
At the stores, marketing and overstocking policies kick in. Retailers are forced to buy pre-set case sizes, even if the amount of food in a case overshoots what the store can actually sell. Also, large-chain grocers have a policy of keeping their displays fully stocked to the top at all times; it’s believed that towering piles brimming over with produce are more visually appealing to customers than ones that are more modestly stocked. This leads to even more unnecessarily damaged food items discarded on a daily basis, which have spilled from the top, are knocked over by customers, are crushed or bruised at the bottom of the heap, or that have exceeded their shelf life. And prepared food counters in supermarkets suffer from this same stock-to-the-top policy; to keep the display window appealing, more food is prepared than is actually sold, often causing 25 to 50 percent of these delicious, ready-made foods to be dumped out in to the garbage at the end of each day.
On top of these daily dumpster dinners and produce go foods with passed holiday and promotion labels, new food items that didn’t sell well, and perfectly edible foods that exceeded their “sell-by” dates (which are set far before actual food expiry dates), resulting in what one major grocery chain discovered to be over $100 million dollars lost in the back-alley dumpster, every year.
And how do you think store chains compensate for all of that wasted daily food product, and for the millions of dollars they must pay yearly to haul it all off to the city landfill? The answer is that they make us pay for it, in the form of incredibly high prices for foods that are in no way superior in taste, freshness, health or nutrition than the items that the stores throw away every day. And your money losses don’t stop there…
Attention Shoppers…No, Really. Start Paying Attention.
At the end of the day, perhaps the worst culprit of food waste is the end consumer. Up to 50 percent of the food that does finally make it to the grocery store is ultimately thrown away by us, the people who overpaid for it in the first place. And not only does this cost you an average of $2,300 dollars every year but, as one of the highest food waste-producing nations on the planet, it also costs you thousands in yearly tax dollars for city waste disposal and waste maintenance services. How have we come to this? And what can we do to stop ourselves from such careless, expensive, and globally damaging habits?
- Realize Beauty Is Only Skin Deep. Most people erroneously believe that the reddest, shiniest, roundest and most symmetrically shaped apple is also the tastiest, healthiest, most nutritious and most satisfying apple. High-end grocery chains take advantage of these skin-deep assumptions by tossing out all of the food products that don’t meet these super-model quality standards, and selling you “perfection” for double the price. But nothing could be further from the truth – just like human beings, fruits and vegetables come in all sorts of shapes, colors and sizes, none of which have anything to do with freshness, quality, taste or health. Substantially cut down your food bills by shopping at smaller grocery stores, that sell less artistic looking – but equally tasty and nutritious – produce, for much lower prices. Remember, you’ll be slicing up or cooking with most of that food, so you won’t be seeing it in full form when it comes to eating it anyway.
- Shop at Farmers’ Markets. Farmers’ markets cut out a lot of the middle men, along with all of the wasteful practices they employ to inflate your food prices. This enables farmers’ markets to sell you fresher, healthier and more naturally produced foods for lower prices. And as farmers don’t have to conform to the strict beauty codes of retailers at their own food stands, they also don’t have to hike their prices further to compensate for all that unnecessary food waste. This allows farmers’ markets to offer you top-quality, fresh and nutritious food for much less than what you pay at the grocery store.
- Stop Bulk Buying and Impulse Buying. “Economy” packs, special sales and store promotions on perishable goods are always enticing as a way to save money. But you’re only saving money if you can completely consume all of that food before it spoils or you tire of eating it. So before you bulk buy or purchase a sale item that you hadn’t originally planned on eating (or aren’t quite sure what to do with), ask yourself: how much of this food will my family and I realistically eat in the next 7 days? And never shop hungry; this will lead to impulse purchases, and to buy more than you usually would.
- Be A Store Clerk In Your Own Kitchen. Take a lesson from your local grocery clerks. Just as they continuously push food items closer to expiry to the front of the shelves and fresher products to the back, organize your fridge and cabinets the same way. It’s far too easy to forget about foods at the back of the fridge, remembering them only once they begin to emit an unpleasant odor and need to be thrown away. So every time you come back from the market, place the items you just bought to the back of your fridge and pantry, and keep older, opened and prepared items at the front, in full view, so that you use them up first.
- Think Ahead. Showing up to the store without the week’s meal plan decided upon and mapped out on a shopping list leads to overestimating the amount of food you need, buying items you may already have at home, and a surplus of food that winds up thrown in the garbage at the end of the week. Before you leave for the store, make a meal plan for the next 7 days, write out a shopping list of precise food quantities you require, and do an inventory check of your fridge, freezer, pantry and cabinets before you leave so that you can cross off listed items that you already have.
- Make Friends With Your Freezer. Despite our best planning effort, we’re not fortune tellers – it’s often difficult to accurately estimate how much you and your family will eat that week, how much food to prepare for guests, which dishes you will tire of eating, how many meals a family member unexpectedly misses, when you might lack appetite or when you may spontaneously decide to eat out instead. So invest in a large chest freezer, good quality freezer bags and a label maker. If leftovers are left lingering in the fridge for more than two days after the preparation date, seal them up in a freezer bag, label them with the date they were cooked on, and stock them in your freezer to be eaten on another occasion.
- Find Out How Expiry Dating Really Works. Contrary to popular belief, date labels are not regulated, they do not indicate food safety, and “sell by,” “best by,” “use by,” and “expires by” dates do not all indicate the same thing. Confusion around these date labels leads millions of consumers to toss away perfectly fresh, edible foods before they have actually spoiled. “Sell by” dates are recommendations to the food retailer of when to start removing a product from the shelf, and are set long before the estimated date of food spoilage. “Best by” dates are set independently by food manufacturers, indicating when they feel their product will be at its best in taste and texture; again, this date is not a measure of when the food has spoiled. Only “use by” and “expired by” dates must be heeded as food safety issues. So don’t feel compelled to throw away a food item in your home because it’s exceeded its “sell by” or “best by” date; when in doubt, use the StillTasty database to help you figure out which foods you can safely eat and which ones you should discard.
- Start Composting. If you wind up with food that spoils, don’t throw it in the trash and contribute to higher waste disposal fees, overburdened landfills and atmospheric pollution. Instead, use it as free and healthy feed for your plants by making your own compost. And not only food scraps can go into the compost; you can also compost coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, ripped up cardboard boxes and paper plates, toothpicks, toilet paper rolls, and many other things you may not have expected.
- Scorn the Super-Size-Me American Appetite. Has your mother ever told you that your eyes are bigger than your stomach? She was right, but probably not because your eyes are too big – the problem is likely your plates. From 1960 to 2007, the average dinner plate expanded by 36 percent, leading us to heap on much more food to fill it up, and to chuck much more uneaten plate leftovers into the trashcan afterwards. Not only will using smaller plates help you reduce the amount of food you eat, but it will also help you reduce the amount of edible food waste that you needlessly throw away.
These are just a few ways to stop unnecessary edible food waste from continuing to affect our wallets, our population and our environment. Sit down and try to come up with a few more food-saving and cost-effective tips, that make sense in your own life. It’s time that we each take responsibility for the way we live our lives today. It’s the only way to stop ourselves from throwing away the chance of a healthy future.
Yours in Good Health,
Dr. Alwyn Wong