|Clean plates by iampease / flickr.com|
"Americans throw away up to 40 percent of their food every year, cramming landfills with at least $165 billion worth of produce and meats..."
That's outrageous! That's like buying lunch every day of the workweek and then tossing two of those lunches in the trash. If you did this every week, all year round, you'd buy 260 lunches and throw 104 of them away. If you spent even $5 on those lunches, you'd burn $520, on top of the labor and environmental costs of choking America's landfills.
But the author doesn't stop there. She goes on to lament that all this food waste happens, "at a time when hundreds of millions of people suffer from chronic hunger globally."
Now I get the rhetorical appeal of this point, but I have to admit I'm rolling my eyes.
It sounds a bit like your mom pleading with you to finish your now-cold fish sticks and overcooked green peas because, hey, don't you know there are kids starving in Africa? My unvoiced response to that line of argument was always, "and will you be the one to lovingly Saran wrap my half-masticated microwave dinner and UPS it to Niger?"
As an adult, my rebuttal now has less to do with logistics, and more to do with upsetting local markets, preventing local problem-solving, and choking--not American landfills, but now--foreign countries with food its inhabitants are unused to cooking and eating. (To be clear: in cases of natural disaster or acute famine, feeding desparately undernourished people clearly warrants those costs to the local ecnomy and culture. But in cases of chronic famine, I would argue, it's less clear cut.)
Rather, authors who write about domestic food waste should talk about domestic hunger. What if your mom instead admonished you: "Hey! Eat those fish sticks and peas. There are kids in your class at school who won't have supper tonight." This argument stands up much better to five- (or twenty-five-) year-old scrutiny.
First, it's probably true. In 2010, the latest year for which national government data is available, 14.5 percent of American households didn't have enough food at all times for an active, healthy life. In government jargon, one in seven housoeholds was food insecure. (The Food Research and Action Center, which measures whether a family can afford enough food, said it was closer to one in six people. [PDF])
Though children are less likely to suffer from food insecurity than their parents (parents are often kind enough to shield their kids from hunger by eating less and giving their kids more), there were still 16 million hungry kids in the United States in 2010. Many of them receive free and reduced-price meals in schools, but schools rarely provides snacks and dinners. Backpack programs and food pantries can help, but the 2010 statistics reflect food insecurity even with those vital resources taken into account.
Second, this line of reasoning makes much more sense. The implication of "finish what's in front of you, or else..." is that the "or else" could both (1) realistically take place and (2) actually help. In fact, you could easily cook a big lasagna and donate it to a local food pantry. Kitchens have different rules, but it's worth a call to your local soup kitchen or food pantry to see what's most useful to them. (From experience working in a kitchen, I can assure you that your uneaten birthday cake is less helpful than a big bag of apples, but most kitchens will take and use well what you bring them.)
And, again, this might actually help your neighbors. Unlike donating food en masse in a foreign country with its own agricultural market, your hungry neighbors depend on domestically-grown food. And though food pantries, which annually give away thousands of boxes or bags of nonperishables, can admittedly make more out of your money than your canned goods, it's still worthwhile to give your unused (but still usable) food to these important community organizations. And now, it's not just an empty threat but an actionable step.
In fact, what if we reconfigured those handy iPhone calorie counting apps, into number-crunching food waste motivators? Rather than counting what you put on your plate, why not regularly calculate the cost of what you push off it into the garbage disposal? The Green Egg Shopper is an early attempt at this, but it doesn't do enough.
The very real hunger in Niger has little to do with your kid's greens, and it's disingenous to claim it does. A family serious about finishing the fish sticks for social justice reasons would calculate what it wastes and give at least as much in money, food, or labor to the local pantry or soup kitchen.
Let's stop threatning to do something about hunger and create a Clean Plate Club that really works.