Take it or leave it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

WASTE NOT WANT NOT


During my medical residency one of my attending physicians once said to me: "I always try to buy fresh vegetables to make for my kids but more often than not they wind up wilting in the back of the fridge only to be thrown out. I am sorry to say that it's the nonperishable items like macaroni and bread that end up getting eaten."

This is not uncommon, especially for working parents who try to balance busy schedules and housekeeping duties. As they say, haste makes waste.

I thought about this yesterday when my grandmother came over for lunch. My mother made pasta. "Why do you make pasta," I said, "when grandma never eats anything but fruit?" Sure enough my grandmother didn't touch the pasta, although she served herself a healthy portion - I presume for politeness' sake. And this is how social conventions get us into trouble. Why didn't she just stick to the fruit?

In a recent year the Agriculture Department estimated that 133 billion pounds of food was lost at the retail and consumer levels. This is almost a third of the nation's food supply, or over 400 lbs of food per American, with vegetables nearly topping the list of the food groups most likely to wind up in the trash. This is a real problem. As the Wall Street Journal reports, when edible food gets thrown away, significant amounts of energy and chemicals used to grow the food are also wasted. Plus, when food rots in landfills, it produces the harmful greenhouse gas methane, exacerbating global warming.

It gets worse: according to the National Institutes of Health food waste absorbs more than 25% of freshwater consumption. During this California drought, we now know where to point the finger of blame. And what about those starving children in Africa! Or for that matter, America? In 2012 nearly 50 million Americans reported not having enough to eat at certain times of the year.

If I'd have asked my grandmother why she served herself pasta she didn't intend to eat she may have cited courtesy, or perhaps she was unaware. Like so many of life's behaviors, the act of serving the food may have been reflexive. How much of our actions are unconscious! In a recent poll, nearly 75 percent of Americans believed they wasted less food than the average household. This, a mathematical impossibility, prompted one expert to lament: "We have a major problem that we don't even see." But we feel the loss - to the tune of over 150 billion dollars down the drain.

So what leads to consumer waste? Of course there is overbuying and confusion over expiration dates, as well as the good intentions of my attending physician and social graces of my grandmother. And with everything so oversized, from markets (Costco) to SUVs and industrial refrigerators the temptation is to buy more than is necessary and then waste what is unused. Expiration dates are a problem as well, as they mislead customers into throwing food away before it has really gone bad.

The United Kingdom reports that over half of wasted food could have been eaten. The same probably goes for America. All it takes is awareness. Be conscious of what you do. Eat what's on your plate. The phrase doubles as a metaphor for life. Waste not want not.

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