How much food did you or your family throw away yesterday? Food waste is an “concern” but what type of “concern” could depend on your point of view. A colleague and I have been collaborating with philosophy professors on a food waste manuscript describing how institutions make ethical decisions on food waste and food sourcing. Philosophers look at the world much differently than most of us and consider different perspectives. Our faculty group discussed many perspectives on this topic, and thought I’d briefly share them here and discuss some applications to you and your community.
A nutritionists point of view: The “Clean Plate Club” is a value that many of us grew up with. We were told that there are children in Africa who are starving and we should clean our plates so we don’t waste food. Many of my colleagues in public health and Extension have come to believe that this value is detrimental to our health in this age of food abundance, fast food, and buffet lines. We should eat intuitively, slowly, honoring our hunger and fullness, and leave on our plate what we don’t need.
Applying this perspective at the community level, some food pantries give people food items whether they want them or not. Much of this food is junk food- cookies, cakes , chips, candies and are donated by community members, institutions, and grocers who want to also want avoid wasting any of this food. Unfortunately, 1/3 of people of visit a food pantry are shopping for someone in their household who might have diabetes or other diet-sensitive chronic diseases. In summary, a nutritionist might say that food waste, especially if its junk food waste is not always a bad thing if it improves health.
A hunger advocate point of view: Food insecurity is a huge problem in this country. Almost 1 out of 6 Americans experience some level of food insecurity. Food insecurity is generally defined by whether or not an individual reports not having enough resources to purchase food, limiting food intake, limiting certain foods, or experiencing hunger. As many experts point out, there should not be food insecurity in developed countries given our abundant food supply. This is certainly a complex problem, but food waste is a major culprit. Every year in the US, 133 billion pounds of food is wasted by retailers, farmers, restaurants, and consumers. Many communities are responding by developing food councils, partnerships, and hunger coalitions and initiate gleaning and food recovery programs.
An ecologists point of view: This perspective was an interesting one that I had not thought much about. An ecologist might argue that really when it comes down to it, there isn’t any such thing as food waste since some organism will benefit, whether it be a bacteria, a raccoon, or grizzly bear (in Alaska, bikers are referred to as meals on wheels). We are all part of the web of life and according to laws of thermodynamics: energy is neither created or destroyed! We all benefit from biodiversity, and the food chain. This is a really complex point of view however. When it comes down to it, some life forms are more beneficial to us than others at least immediately and others in ways we don’t understand. Raccoons eat our garbage, a grizzly (or mountain lion) might eat the raccoon, and being an apex predator might keep down deer or other animal populations that damage crops.
A food safety advocate point of food: Foodborne illness is a huge problem in this country. Every year 48 million Americans experience some form of food borne illness. Most foodborne illnesses usually occur because of time-temperature abuses; when meats or poultry are not cooked properly, or left out too long at room temperatures. In other cases, ready to eat foods are contaminated with raw meat juices, or by bacteria, viruses transferred to food through improperly washed hands. People at risk for foodborne illness are the elderly, young children, or people with compromised immune systems. A food safety advocate would argue that food waste is necessary if there might be a concern regarding food safety. Many food pantries and food banks have polices about accepting dented cans, home-canned foods, custom processed game meat, etc. In many cases, the risk for foodborne illness is minimal, but food safety advocates would argue that any amount of risk is too great to bear, even if it means a food pantry has less food to distribute.
Have I confused you? What does this all mean for you, or your community? Which perspective do you agree with? Can you see how different perspectives sometimes conflict with one another? For example, a food pantry volunteer who is a hunger advocate might get irritated with food safety policies, suggesting that dented canned food should be wasted. From our Extension point of view, how can this knowledge, and understanding be applied to the issue of food waste? Consider your own values- is health and wellness most important, is it helping people be food secure, is it helping the environment? Consider overlaps in the different points of view in your understanding and actions. For example…
- You can start a compost pile to discard spoiled produce and other non-fatty foods in your household or if you volunteer at a food pantry. Compost is great for vegetable gardens, flowers, and trees. This takes into consideration the points of view of the ecologist and a food safety advocate.
- Encourage food pantries in your community to transition to a MyPlate Guided Rainbow of Choice model where people choose food that they want or need. Nutrition education can also be helpful to demonstrate how to use various foods and so healthy food doesn’t go to waste.
- Donate healthy desirable food to a food pantry and not foods that have been sitting in your cupboard for a year, like the canned cranberry jelly from thanksgiving or shrimp cocktail sauce from the Superbowl party.
- Don’t order from the buffet. Period. Most buffets probably waste food. What’s more, when you eat from the buffet you’ll probably waste food and/or overeat, and as certified food safety instructor, I can attest that there are LOTS of food safety challenges with buffets.
- What are some ideas that you might have?
Author: Dan Remley, Assistant Professor, Field Specialist, Food, Nutrition, and Wellness, OSU Extension
Reviewer: Shannon Carter, Extension Educator, Family & Consumer Sciences, OSU Extension, Fairfield County
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Burden of Foodborne Illness: Findings. Accessed at http://www.endhunger.org/PDFs/2014/USDA-FoodLoss-2014.pdf
Feeding America. Hunger in America 2014. Accessed at http://www.endhunger.org/PDFs/2014/USDA-FoodLoss-2014.pdf
Ohio State University Extension Factsheet. MyPlate Guided Rainbow of Colors Choice System for Food Pantry Staff and Volunteers. Accessed at http://www.endhunger.org/PDFs/2014/USDA-FoodLoss-2014.pdf
United States Department of Agriculture. The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States. Accessed at http://www.endhunger.org/PDFs/2014/USDA-FoodLoss-2014.pdf