Take a bite out of irresponsible food waste

by Caitlin Johnson

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HEALTHY LIVING: LeftoversIt’s no secret that millions of people around the world go hungry each year. Americans tend to be sympathetic, but unsurprised, when they hear about the woes of another poverty-stricken family struggling to put food on the table. What’s even more surprising is the incomprehensible correlation between the number of people who go hungry and the amount of food Americans throw out annually.

Food waste is a growing problem. According to an article by The New York Times, approximately 1.3 billion tons of food is thrown out every year—almost one-third of the total food produced worldwide. Only a quarter of this surplus would be enough to feed a majority of the world’s hungry, according to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations leader Robert van Otterdijk.

According to the article, Europe and the U.S. are the greatest contributers of food waste. Theoretically, much of the problem is out of our hands. Half of this loss—food that is spilled, spoiled, contaminated or otherwise lost in the production process—occurs at a commercial level, according to the Think, Eat, Save initiative. But once products reach store shelves, consumers have the power to manage the unnecessary surplus simply based on what and how much they buy.

There are a few misconceptions consumers fall prey to when buying groceries. Because Americans are often raised to seek out the best of everything, they often overlook imperfect products. Too often, consumers will avoid visually distasteful foods despite their nutritional integrity. No one wants a piece of fruit that has been bruised. We pay for it, so we deserve the best quality, right?

Unfortunately, when everyone in the store shares this mindset, perfectly edible foods are ultimately thrown away. While it’s true some is donated to food banks, almost half is left to rot in landfills. Consumers can curb this problem by changing their attitudes about less-than-perfect products.

Those pesky sell-by dates are another issue. Manufacturers train buyers to abide by these labels, causing them to believe food is no longer good once it passes that expiration date. Realistically, these dates are merely used to push products off the shelves. They don’t represent food safety and with the exception of baby formula, they aren’t even federally regulated. The best way to tell whether or not food is past its prime is simple: Follow your nose. If it smells fine, chances are it’s still safe to eat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector Service says use-by dates refer to quality, not safety, and “an off odor, flavor or appearance” can be a good indicator of when food is actually spoiled.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, leftover food accounts for 21 percent of landfill waste, the single biggest share. It’s a monetary loss for producers and consumers alike and creates a negative impact on the environment. Rotting food expels methane, a greenhouse gas considerably more potent than carbon dioxide. Wasted food also uses up valuable resources, such as water, fertilizer and energy that could be put to better use elsewhere in the production process.

Efforts are already being made on campus to cut back on excess food production. San Diego State Dining Services Director Paul Melchior discussed the university’s extensive methods for limiting waste both before and after consumption. Buying product in bulk for the dining halls and collecting food scraps for compost are just two ways Dining Services is making strides toward a more economical and environmentally friendly future.

SDSU’s food waste diversion and composting program has been recognized by the City of San Diego for its innovative practices. The “less is more” philosophy applies here.  SDSU recycling coordinator Steve Lincoln said the goal of the program is to reduce waste in the initial stages of food preparation because transporting leftovers to compost sites after the fact can be costly.

The next time you’re at the store, ask yourself if you’ll be able to use the products you purchase before they expire. Better yet, make a note of what you already have in the kitchen before you shop to avoid buying too much. Certain websites, such as myfridgefood.com, are a good way to make meals out of ingredients you already have. Saving leftovers when going out to eat or splitting an entree between two people are also easy strategies to apply.

Squandering our surpluses is definitely a major problem, especially when there are so many here and abroad that go without. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution. By being aware of our consumption habits, we can easily begin to reverse them, and everyone will benefit as a result. When it comes to reducing our impact, a little effort truly does go a long way.


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