A few years and many grocery store trips later, I came to expect blemish-less, Instagram-worthy fruits and vegetables unblinkingly. I piled my cart with as much produce as everyone else. And, at the end of the week, I winced only slightly as I threw wilted kale and squishy oranges into the trash.
Little did I realize that my demand for cosmetically perfect produce or my need to overstock my refrigerator for a rainy day, could potentially have huge repercussions. Multiply my consumer expectations and shopping patterns by the thousands of households in the U.S., and we create a staggering epidemic of food waste.
America’s Food Waste Crisis
Today in America as much as 40 percent of food produced is never eaten. Some of the produce is simply not harvested—the labor and cost involved are simply not worth it when retailers and, ultimately, consumers are unwilling to stock or buy imperfect produce. And while it may start at the farms, food waste trickles down to the household. An estimated 15 to 25 percent of food in American households goes unused.
Like the 2014 documentary Just Eat It puts it: that’s like buying four bags of groceries, letting one of them drop in the parking lot and not doing anything about it.
Just take tomatoes for instance. The EPA reports that 31 percent of fresh tomatoes bought by U.S. households are thrown out—that’s 21 tomatoes a year per person. That’s over $2.3 billion in just tomatoes. The cost of all U.S. household food waste amounts to a staggering $166 billion.
While so much is going unused, one in eight U.S. households is food insecure. That includes an estimated 13 million children who may not know where their next meal is coming from. This is also an environmental issue. Food waste is the second largest category of materials in American trash. Once wasted food reaches landfills, it produces methane, a gas with 21 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. And, of course, there is the economic fallout: The United States spends $218 billion a year growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten.
This is not someone else’s problem. Food insecurity affects all our communities. And pollution does not discriminate between the rich and the poor. Scripture reminds us in Peter 4:10 that each of us should “use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
Becoming Better Food Stewards
What can we do to stop food waste? We can start small by eating leftovers, doggy bagging excess from restaurants and composting food waste. The EPA has published a guide called Food: Too Good to Waste to help figure out what to do at a household and community level. It includes behavior changes, like meal planning and smart storage, as well as information to run small education campaigns.
College students can start or join a Campus Kitchen project where volunteers pick up unused food from campus dining providers and local food banks. Student-run kitchens then turn it into meals that meet safety standards that are then donated to those struggling with food insecurity. Food Recovery Network is another program that mobilizes students in the fight against hunger through its 206 college chapters.
We can also volunteer or donate to organizations like Feeding America that has a nationwide network to provide food and services to more than 46 million people each year.
If you have the option, shop through subscription services like Imperfect Food which sells wholesome but “ugly” produce. In the last few years, the “ugly food movement” has taken off Australia and Europe. Thanks to celebrity endorsement and grocery stores coming on board, consumers are now willing to buy “inglorious” food, and it usually comes with a lower price tag. It may take years of unlearning, but we have to let go of our cosmetic standards for food. It is up to us to become better stewards of the resources with which we’ve been entrusted.