Sunday, May 12, 2013

State of the Field Report – Food Waste – A Top-Down Analysis

My inquiry into food waste started with personal goals. I intended to utilize the anthropological lens I’ve developed over the past 3 years to learn why consumers waste food. With this knowledge, I’d develop methods of reducing food waste at home. I said to myself that by making a public commitment to reduce my food waste, I would surely follow through. There was, and always is, one snafu: my overwhelming self-consciousness. It’s one affliction with a whole slew of social hindrances, and this time I was struck by paranoia each time I sat down to write a blog post and thought: people might actually read this…

Reluctant to present myself so publicly, I waited for a spontaneous surge of confidence to make me rise to the occasion. It never came. And so, as per usual, I started off without a moment to spare. Surprisingly enough, I enjoyed the blog format because it felt conducive to my eclectic writing style. It’s much easier to coalesce an assortment of thoughts under a single topic when hyperlinks reduce the burden of explanation. The blog format is also more suited for expressing random trains of thought because everyone leapfrogs around the Internet. Plus, I love watching videos and this was my first legitimate opportunity to reference television in an academic context. The medium worked well for me, the audience…not so much.

Nevertheless, I powered through the Internet’s knowledge on food waste and the facts were staggering.

About 1 billion tons of food is wasted each year, and about 1 billion people are hungry. It’s a disquieting paradox that’s woefully unacknowledged. To give you a frame of reference, an American eats, on average, almost a ton of food per year. Suffice it to say there’s enough food to go around. To be honest, I didn't realize the magnitude of this issue until I started researching for this blog. With every source came an onslaught of distressing statistics and info graphics, all of which conveyed the same message: too much food is being wasted. These sorts of facts and figures carry shock value, and this topic certainly lends itself to those descriptors, but I’ll refrain from using statistics here because quite frankly, I’m tired of seeing people reduced to numbers. My opening statement should suffice to convey the gravity of this situation. Besides, the source of this problem isn’t a lack of comprehensive data on who’s wasting what where. We have plenty of that, trust me I’ve read it. Like so many global issues, the biggest problem is a lack of communication. Farmers, consumers, restaurant owners, activists, friends, freegans - people at all levels of the food supply who must form connections both within and between their strata if there is any hope of reducing our waste. The greatest amount of waste is created in homes, but good, healthy food slips through the cracks at every level. This State of the Field report is my attempt to synthesize the information I’ve gathered on food waste at various levels of the food supply chain in a top-down fashion to understand why food is wasted at particular levels, and what measures can be taken to prevent it.

Let's begin at the source: Farms

Farmers are under intense pressure to meet free market demands. To remain competitive, they must ensure crop production of sufficient quantity and quality. The size of their yield must account for the fact that some crops won’t be sold because they do not meet exacting standards set by their customers (typically food retailers.) So farmers that can afford to will err on the side of caution by producing far more than needed. The excess crops are either sold for livestock feed (often for no profit) or sent to the landfills.

The solution is cooperation between farmers that allow ones surplus to compensate for another’s shortage. The overly strict standards typically pertain to cosmetic qualities that supermarkets assume are expected by consumers. In reality, the consumers probably anticipate that produce will meet an aesthetic standard based on the bar set by supermarkets. Thus perpetuating a very wasteful cycle. To know what consumers truly expect of produce, supermarkets can distribute surveys to consumers and use the results to create more accurate and hopefully less stringent standards to guide future purchases from farmers.

Now on to the restaurant plates & grocery store shelves
Restaurant food waste is self-explanatory: patrons don’t finish meals. The restaurant is an interesting context because responsibility for food waste shifts from the restaurant, to the customer, then back to the restaurant. Large serving sizes leads to more food left on plates so serving smaller portions is an easy first step in mitigating restaurant food waste. After this, the onus is on the patron to clean their plate. Many of us have experienced that awkward moment at the end of a meal when debating whether or not enough food is left to warrant a doggie bag. My strategy is to eat with prudence: if I’m unlikely to finish I stop eating when a sizable portion is left. Not everyone has this degree of forethought or self-control, so some food is inevitably left behind. Now its back in the hands of the restaurant owner who has made an executive decision about what to do with scraps. The most environmentally sound course of action is to compost this food, like many New York restaurants will do to honor their pledge of reducing waste in landfills.

Food waste at grocery stores is also generated in a predictable way: perishable food begins to spoil. However the point at which food is no longer sellable is a subjective matter. Stores are incentivized to clear bruised or otherwise blemished food from the shelves, even if it is safe for consumption, because it does not meet consumers’ cosmetic standards. “Sell By” Dates are often marked earlier to avoid potential lawsuits. Generally, the idea is to only have the freshest, prettiest foods on display.

Before sending produce to its next (and potentially final) location, one simple waste reduction strategy for supermarkets is to offer blemished fruit at discounted prices. Food that doesn’t make it into consumers shopping carts has a number of potential fates. The most favorable options are those ensuring the food is being routed to hungry people such as a donation to a charity, non-profit organizations or programs such as the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge. Unfortunately, some companies find the logistics of coordinating with such organizations to be too much of hassle. Or they worry that about legal ramifications of someone getting sick from their food. Such concerns are invalid because these companies are protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, which protects individual or corporations from any criminal or civil liability should someone get sick from donated food. Despite this exoneration some food stores are unwilling to engage in such charitable programs because they consider such entanglements risky for their public image. From a business standpoint, these partnerships are more likely to strengthen public image by displaying corporate social responsibility. It’s also just basic human decency.

Those food retailers who choose not to donate food, or just not ALL the food that can be donated *COUGH COUGH TRADER JOES* and don’t compost will put their waste in the dumpster. For much of the food, this represents the end of a journey in vain from the farm to the landfill. Some food, however, is given a second chance at fulfilling its destiny to be consumed.

Enter: Dumpster Divers

The term dumpster divers evokes images of street urchins or homeless people loitering on a dark side street. Some do fit that profile, but doesn’t negate the fact that dumpster divers are some of societies most noble citizens. They see the potential for a nutritious meal in what others consider garbage. While most people are blinded by social taboos about handling trash, its clear to dumpster divers that all this food needs is a rinse and inspection. The trash belongs to no one in particular, so by sharing the dumpsters’ wealth divers form egalitarian communities naturally. Take for instance my friend Maximus Thaler, who’s launching the Gleaner’s Kitchen, a revolutionary café & restaurant that will serve entirely dumpstered food free of charge. The restaurant will also function as a performance art space and music venue. It will be a public space for nourishing the body and mind. In my opinion, the best fate to befall any piece of food is being sustenance for a dumpster diver.

Dumpster Divers are admirable for rescuing food, but their role is dependent on the inefficiencies of a system that needs fixing. Much of our food waste results from a lack of communication on food quality standards. Let the dumpster diver’s two basic principles be a lesson to other levels of the food supply chain.

1) SHARE: That applies most literally to the two ends of the chain. Farmers should cooperate and redistribute crops amongst one another to reduce waste by overproduction. And consumers can reduce waste at home and restaurants by sharing meals. Throughout the chain information must be shared, to maintain transparency at all levels.
2) LEAVE THE PLACE CLEANER THAN YOU FOUND IT: The philosophy that must be adopted when considering the amount of environmental degradation and pollution that goes into making food that wont be eaten.

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