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 more privileged consumers 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

We need to take a moment to acknowledge that corporations hold a tremendous amount of power over the food system. Manufacturers (e.g. General Mills, Cargill, Kraft-Heinz Company) and retailers (grocery stores, etc.) determine what we are exposed to, what we are not exposed to (think the thousands of delicious and nutritious plant varieties that are not being grown on a commercial scale), the ingredients that go into our food, and how products are marketed.

As it is, the food giants of the world make it very difficult for us, the consumer, to make environmentally-sound purchases. We have to take it upon ourselves to seek out sustainable and healthy options where they are few and far between – and we all know how hard it is to swat our way through the fog of green-washing. It is simply not realistic or doable to put all the onus for environmental reform on the consumer.

However.

Our food system does not exist in a vacuum. Manufacturers and retailers must, to a certain extent, adjust to consumer demand. There is no such thing as neutral impact: when you shop, you are casting your vote for which product should be more widely produced and available. 

This also applies to the shape and look of grocery store produce. Though it seems counter-intuitive, purchasing the dinged-up, imperfect, too-small produce lets your store know that these items hold value. You are saying, “don’t throw this stuff away – I’ll give you money in exchange for less food waste and equally delicious (but slightly ugly) food.” More on shopping to reduce food waste here.

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 over-handled. 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 witness imperfect products.

At my last job at a food rescue organization in Boston, we would regularly receive supermarket donation that was several 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.

These stores knew their customers avoided products nearing the sell-by date, so they rotated these perfectly good products off the shelves early. Luckily, these particular stores had donation programs, and this food, pre- and post- expiration date, were enjoyed by recipient families.

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 these foods are in fact just as “normal” as 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?

By the way. Just to clarify: I know this blog is called Love Ugly Food, and I often use “ugly” to describe imperfect food. This is meant to be ironic. In no way is imperfect food ugly. It’s normal, it’s beautiful, it has character. Ugly food is adorable.

Anyways.

Though I hate to say it, your parents had a point when they said, “eat your food, there are starving children out there!” The message here is to appreciate and utilize your resources (which would very likely lead us to reducing our food waste). But it also points to a broader issue: the fact that there is only so much food in the world. If several billion people globally are undernourished, but we produce enough food to feed many more than our world’s population, where the heck is this food going? There are many complexities to the issue of hunger, but this could not be more simple. It is going to waste.

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 by soliciting the idea that only perfect food is worth our money. But at the grocery store and in our homes, we can change that narrative. We can decide that imperfect food has value – that we’ll eat our leftovers, prioritize the perishable veg, and never, ever, to the best of our ability, let meat go to waste. By reducing our food waste, those resources have the chance to actually be consumed by people who need it.

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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