Julianne Troiano // 16 March 2016 // #GoingGreen
Imagine going to the food store, purchasing four bags of groceries, and then on your way home you drop one of the bags and just keep walking without going back to pick it up. This seems outrageous, right? Why would anyone just waste a whole bag of food?
Think of the cost of the food or the people who go without food! Believe it or not, this is essentially what we are doing with our groceries, given that 15-25% of the food bought by households in the United States is thrown out. Similar trends are seen around the world in developed countries.
I learned this surprising fact during a recent screening at my university of a documentary called Just Eat It. Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer, the film’s director and producer, respectively, bring light to the developed worlds food waste issue by pledging to survive off of food waste for six months.
Yes, they survive off of food waste as their only source of food! What would you think if someone asked you to survive off of food waste for six months? I imagined this being extremely difficult and having to dive in a dumpster for leftovers, but as the story unfolds you discover that substantial food waste really is out there, and not just in the form of half eaten leftovers.
Just Eat It – A food waste story (Official Trailer) from GrantBaldwin on Vimeo.
One of the most shocking scenes shows Grant searching for discarded food in the back of a grocery store when he finds a dumpster full of unopened, prepackaged hummus that was perfectly fine to eat. At one point they also find hundreds of gourmet chocolate bars that they keep to give away on Halloween. Living off of food waste and they can still give out candy on Halloween!
When and where is food waste happening?
Looking at the origin of produce at farms I was surprised to find out how much produce is discarded at this early stage. There are strict guidelines from stores on the aesthetics of produce. For example, romaine lettuce that is sold in a plastic bag needs to fit in the bag, so the romaine can only be so tall and wide. And with peaches, they have to be a specific size and shape, or else they are discarded as well. You should see the dumpster of peaches in the documentary that were being discarded! The owner of the peach farm in California that participated in the film commented that they give away what they can, or try to sell to other vendors, but the reality is that a lot of perfectly good peaches are discarded because they are a weird shape, or have a bruise.
The worst for me was watching one of the farmers preparing the celery to be distributed. They cut off the bottom of the celery stalks and a few layers of celery. The amount of perfectly good celery discarded on the floor was enormous. Once the food is on display in the store even more produce is disregarded for is appearance. This definitely got me to search through the produce and choose the “ugly” fruit or vegetables. From there, we waste 15-25% of the food that makes it into our households; from food that goes bad before it is used to leftovers that you just can’t finish.
What does this mean for the environment?
Even if the amount of food waste bothers you, the connection to the environment isn’t always apparent. Think about all of the resources used to produce the food that we eat: fertilizer, water, food for animals, and fuel to transport the goods to name a few, and if we just discard food we are discarded these resources as well. The most interesting fact that I learned from the documentary was how food breaks down in a landfill. When food is disposed of it actually breaks down such that it produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas, and therefore this process contributes to climate change.
What can we do about food waste?
Although all too often overlooked, food waste is really a challenge that concerns us all and that we all can help prevent. One first and inevitable step is to raise awareness about the issue: I think that sharing knowledge about food waste, such as through watching documentaries like Just Eat It, is a great way to show people how much food waste really matters and what role everyone can play in diminishing the problem. This allows people to take food waste into their own hands and start with their own home.
Some suggestions for taking food waste into our own hands includes the following: buying the produce at the store that isn’t “picture perfect,” meal planning, and finding creative ways to use leftovers. Do you have any other ideas? Is there food waste at your school? If so, what can we do about it?
Fun and Educational Resources
- Try this quiz from Just Eat It to find out if you are a food waster.
- What can schools do to help with food waste?
- Educational Resources from Just Eat It: Educational DVDs, Curriculum Guide, Coloring Book
Julianne Troiano is a graduate student at the Center for Chemical Innovation on Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Julianne is interested in environmental science and has experience as a blogger (www.sustainable-nano.com). She recently travelled to Iceland to study glaciers and alternative energy and will share her experiences with us.