Local food is a hot topic. Farmers markets are on the rise. Small diverse farmers are finding greater markets, and nearly everywhere demand is rising for local food. But similar to the growth in the organic industry, which has been extremely rapid in the past ten years, this growing interest in local food still represents a tiny portion of food purchases in the U.S. Be honest with yourself: how much of the money that you spend each month on food is given to the farmers themselves, and how much is handed over to that teenager at the cash register of (insert chain name here) Supermarket? And YOU, you who are reading this are most likely very interested in local food, in supporting small family farmers. You do your best to buy local, or maybe at the very least you try to shop at a farmers market once a week, or once a month. The reality is that the vast majority of Americans shop at a Safeway, an Albertsons, a Wal-Mart or a Costco for their food.
I will not tell those people that they are supporting evil corporations (oops, I kind of just did), and I will not condemn them (really, I’m not). People need to eat. Rich people need to eat. People who make very little money need to eat. Everybody Eats! could be the name of my first children’s book (and the sequel has already been done…what goes in must come out, right?) But I digress. Truly, people need to access food, and most people are concerned about spending money, and so they go and hunt for the bargain. Bargains will always always always been found at those big box stores. Economies of scale and so forth. And thus, the majority of Americans are handing their dollars to the second lowest paid person in the food system that made the food appear on the shelves at (insert chain name here) Supermarket. Who do you think the lowest paid person is? It’s not the bag-boy. But I digress yet again.
Waste. Not the Everybody-Poops-type of waste, but real waste. As in, “oh what a waste!” Food waste. Supermarket food is wasted every day. Food is bought and shipped from countries around the world: apples from New Zealand, bananas from Ecuador, grapes from Chile, tomatoes from Mexico, pineapples from Costa Rica, mangoes from India…the list goes on and on. This imported cornucopia then goes on display in rustic looking crates and baskets below faux-hand-chalked signs with the product name and price. A beautiful colorful array, truly breathtaking. Yes, I went that far. But I’ve lived in places where that abundance cannot be found. And so to see close to a hundred different kinds of fruits and vegetables displayed in an aesthetically pleasing way as the grocery store designers have done, it truly is breathtaking. The produce section in the average supermarket is undoubtedly more exotic and well-traveled than the average shopper in that same supermarket.
So what does this kaleidoscopic produce exhibition have to do with waste?
Too much of it gets piled into a landfill, that’s what. I read studies saying 40-50% of U.S. food is wasted, as in not eaten. That’s about six million tons of food. I was a bit horrified, but that includes food that never makes it to market (ex: apple “drops” and other losses), as well as food consumers do buy but then don’t eat, as well as food tossed out at restaurants, hospitals, prisons, etc. The monetary value of all of this waste is in the neighborhood of $155 billion each year. But just for supermarkets: 60-70% of waste generated by supermarkets is food. Food that was once (or maybe still is) edible. If you work in a supermarket, you alone throw away about 3,000 pounds of food each year. Some of the food is spoiled, but most of it isn’t. For obvious reasons, supermarkets tend to throw out food before it becomes rotten and moldy on the shelf. So a lot of this food is still edible as it’s chucked into the dumpster. Talk about a waste! It took a lot of energy and effort to bring that food to the supermarket, and for it to just end up as a landfill statistic is a crying shame.
There are alternatives, and many “food recovery” groups are taking charge of stopping the waste from being waste. Meat that is close to expiration can be frozen and donated to food banks. Same with many other perishable items. Food banks are often overwhelmed with nonperishable items, but are in desperate need of both protein and fresh produce. Other food that is past the point of human consumption (badly bruised pears, slightly soggy spinach) can be used as pig feed or sometimes chicken feed for backyard and small-scale livestock operations. It sounds simple to divert the food waste stream into a beneficial purpose, but like many things in our litigious and highly regulated society, it’s infuriatingly complex. One of the biggest barriers is motivating supermarkets to participate in programs that will accept all types of food. It involved additional sorting and transportation, and then the supermarkets have fears of being sued by sickening someone with food that spoiled by the time it reached that person. In 1996, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was signed by President Clinton in an attempt to encourage more food donations by lessening the chances of being sued. Most supermarkets do not trust this; the act does not say they will NEVER get sued, and it’s up to them to prove that they did not knowingly supply spoiled (and thus harmful) food to needy people. For the supermarket lawyers, it’s easier just to keep the food flowing into the dumpster.
Food recovery programs are on the rise, and some even have refrigerated trucks and freezer storage to keep the food viable for longer. There are underground efforts of people in cities digging through the curbside trash in order to salvage the produce and other still-edible food products thrown out by supermarkets and restaurants. Pig farmers in some areas have been able to secure a continuous source of the produce waste from some large supermarkets. The point is that alternatives do exist but it’s often up to localized movements to approach supermarkets asking them to divert their food waste stream. But before you approach them, make sure you have a plan. Get some ideas at this blog devoted to Wasted Food.