An Imperfect Food System: How Food Waste Perpetuates Food Insecurity

This is part 2 of a 4-part series on the connection between food waste and food insecurity.

Read part 1: Grocery Privilege.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

You know the escalating collective anxiety over not having enough food to feed our multiplying mouths? At the moment, we actually grow more than enough food: enough to feed about 10 billion people, compared to our global population of 7.8 billion. 

Karl Deily, President of Sealed Air Food Care says, “if we could save just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted, we could feed the 821 million undernourished people across the globe. Reducing food waste must be a top priority if we are going to help reduce hunger.”

According to the NRDC, more food waste is produced by consumers at home than in any other arena. If we can limit the food we waste in our homes and at grocery stores as we select our purchases, we have a chance at redirecting that food to households for which waste isn’t an option. 

Systemic food waste

We’re using a lot of technology and resources to increase our food production at a pace that meets our growing population. Really, these efforts should be geared toward food waste reforms, educational campaigns, and even regulations around household waste, something that’s proven effective in South Korea (in place of a recycling fee, households are taxed on their food waste by volume; it’s actually illegal to send food waste to landfill!). To sustainably feed our planet, there needs to be a food waste crackdown on retailers and businesses, and major reorientation when it comes to how we get our food.

In our familiar food retail model, farmers are pressed to meet unrealistic aesthetic standards within the constraints of unpredictable weather, disease, and pest damage, while being subject to last-minute order changes from grocers, based on yet another unpredictability—customer preference. 

Photo by Rob Mulder on Unsplash

As stores prepare to stock their shelves, they predict what customers will want, how much, and when.  In order to fulfill a constant and seamless supply of that product, while cushioning for the possibility of greater demand, stores will overshoot their  estimation of volume when they place their inventory order. 

Through a distributor, suppliers work to meet this prediction. To compensate for the volatility of farming and lack of crop uniformity, growers will further overshoot their yield goal when they plant. 

What results is food loss on the farm and food waste at the store, particularly if it turns out consumers aren’t actually keen on that product in the first place. By the time the patron has taken that product home and let a third of it go to waste, only a portion of that farmer’s crop is consumed.  

To limit waste in all stages of the supply chain, we need to correct the dynamic of unwavering supply by demand. This access is something privileged folks in particular may take for granted as a basic standard of living. But of course, unbridled availability is neither a sustainable expectation nor an experience shared by everyone. The food waste that results from this convenience occupies resources that could otherwise be accessed by a wider population.  

In the future, we’ll need to adjust our dinner plans based on what’s available on our farms. This is already in practice and growing in popularity in the form of community supported agriculture (CSA) and to some extent farmers markets, where there is no intermediary. 

In order to make a full-scale systemic shift away from the grocery store model however, these alternative systems need to be accessible to all demographics—and though the near future may hold progress in this regard, it is unrealistic to expect a shift at the ideal magnitude.  

Luckily there are things we can do now to influence our food system.

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers

Apply your influence

Our food system does not exist in a vacuum. It exists for the consumer, adjusting to our demands for the sake of corporate bottom lines. There is no such thing as neutral impact: when you shop and buy, you are casting your vote. 

When you buy in a way that encourages food waste, you are saying “this is how I want our resources of production and distribution to be spent, please continue to produce more than I need so almost half of it will end up in the garbage instead of on dinner plates.”  (Note: I will follow this post with information on how to limit food waste at home and at the grocery store.) 

This sounds harsh, but your vote is as clear-cut as that. Though we have been taught to buy only the freshest food based on its date label, or the most unblemished fruit, or to applaud a store for their immaculately-stocked shelves, these choices unfortunately don’t say, “I have no preference” and they definitely don’t say, “I don’t support wasteful practices.” 

I have seen more than one instance of a grocery store customer complaining to an employee about seeing an item on the date of its “expiration,” or exhibiting disgust at seeing rotten vegetables when they were simply overripe or wilting. As these customers will gladly know, their complaints hold weight; they reinforce to the store that food must be rotated out more quickly, to diminish even the possibility that customers will—heaven forbid—witness their product as vulnerable to the forces of time. Personally, I applaud a store for giving these less-fresh but still-fresh items the opportunity to be purchased rather than prematurely thrown away, to serve no purpose other than produce methane as they rot in landfill.  

At my last job at a food rescue organization in Boston, we would regularly receive supermarket donation that was days away from its sell-by date. “They didn’t even give it a chance to be bought!” was how my colleague greeted these products. By “they” it isn’t the store here—it’s the customer that refuses to buy the product. 

A pair of hands removes the leafs of a beet over a crate of orange, pink, and purple beets of all shapes and sizes.
Farmer Joe grooms just-harvested, non-uniform beets at Mill City Grows, a food security organization near Boston where I used to work.

We have been taught all our lives to reject blemished or differently-formed food, but this is in fact more “normal” than the food we typically see on market shelves. What are we teaching our children or encouraging in our culture if we reject anything that doesn’t fall within a slim margin of perfection—within the standard shape, color, and size that we have deemed desirable?

Our food system is flawed. It is much less advanced and progressive than glowing advertising and spotless veneers declare. It continues to perpetuate social and environmental strife: and we, as consumers, are well-positioned to change that.

Read part 3: It All Comes Back to Climate Change
Read part 4: Reducing Waste While You Shop

Related Posts:

How Restrictions During Coronavirus Can Ignite Long-Term Environmental Healing

Should We Follow Expiration Dates?

Published by Yenny

I want to share with you what I’ve learned from my work as a food rescuer and from my personal waste-reduction journey, while bringing you perspectives from my network of wise industry professionals. Let’s push full-steam ahead toward building the tools and systems we need to conserve, preserve, and value our resources.

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