An Imperfect Food System: Grocery Privilege

This is part 1 of a 4-part series on the connection between food waste and food security.

This had a profound influence on his life as he came to know the gnawing pangs of hunger and fell behind in school because of the listlessness it produced; it also led him to make a vow, at age eleven, to dedicate his life to the struggle against hunger, so that other children would not have to know the agony he was then experiencing. -Donaldo Macedo (about Paulo Freire) in his introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed

An abundant display of uniform vegetables at a grocery store

You may have heard of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It’s a highly-revered critique and theory on education, written in the late ‘60’s by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Recently I started reading it, but at a distance. I am leery of theory, and the way academia will take any old word and freely add an “ism” or “ality” to the end makes me wonder if there’s no other purpose than to sound more scholarly. 

I was mistrustful for another reason… out of two polarizing categories, I seemed to fall into the bad one: if you’re not the “oppressed”, Freire suggests, you are the oppressor. I resisted the simplification and the accusation. 

His ideas didn’t begin to resonate with me until I could put them into the context of an issue I was more intimate with: food waste. When I thought about our roles in conquering and subverting our natural world and its animal inhabitants through the excess we’re accustomed to living in, I realized that even in this space, we play a role in the subjugation of other humans. Through small acts of carelessness and habits of lifestyle, we are unconsciously raising ourselves up (in our display of wealth and status, and our monopolizing of limited resources) at the expense of others. 

When it comes to food, the system we’ve designed has evolved out of deep racism and violence. This system now presents as a welcoming, modern symbol of service and abundance, with gleaming grocery store aisles, mounds of polished and uniform apples, and pictures of green sprawling fields on egg cartons. Of course, though the conscious hostility of before is suppressed, it takes form in the injustices that both farm workers and residents of food deserts face, and in underlying, unconscious alienation. 

Photo by Brittani Burns

Unfortunately, the role we play within our food system often perpetuates the injustices within it. Though we’ve grown familiar with the terms “food injustice” or “food inequity” or “food insecurity,” it is outrageous that these descriptions should be attached to food at all. Food is not only an emotionally and culturally essential aspect of existence, but a basic human right—and since the beginning of civilization, people have been deprived of it. Now is no exception.

Benefitting from inequality

When I hear someone say “white people benefit from racism,” it’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around how this specifically plays out in my life. It’s hard to accept this notion of benefit when we all battle with our differences in the struggle to conform to an inherently prescriptive society. Is there ever a point where we feel high enough in the food chain to recognize the benefits of our luxuries, in whatever way they present? 

No matter our situation, we always feel a little oppressed. It’s human nature to notice lack over plentitude. But the struggles of the comparatively-privileged are of a completely different proportion than the struggles historically disadvantaged groups experience. If we have privilege (be it whiteness, maleness, straightness, money, education, health, youth, community, opportunity…), our search for belonging is accompanied by protections that tip the odds of success in our favor.

A display of organic cherry tomatoes advertises $4.00/box.
Photo by Anne Preble

If we have privilege, we do benefit from the oppression of others in certain ways. In the case of food security, those of us who are able to make more varied choices in our purchasing benefit from “belonging” in the societal world of food. With VIP access to any product in our grocery store and endless dining choices at our fingertips, we can fully participate within a system whose foremost priority is to please us.

While most food insecure families shop at grocery stores as well, these trips can be limited in frequency. Their grocery selection may be constrained within a particular supermarket and budget, purchases are often supported by SNAP (government food assistance), and groceries are sometimes supplemented by items from food donation programs. Yet, there might still be a lack in quantity or nutrition. Families often need to prioritize one at the sacrifice of the other.

If you’re food secure, you probably walk the aisles with a sense of possibility. Especially when it comes to higher-end or more intimate markets, your identity as customer means you are there to be served and valued: imagine what this alone does for your sense of worth. 

But while the food insecure might share the same spaces as the food secure, their experience of these spaces is altogether different: they are constantly reminded of their precariousness in this system. They are looking in from the outside, estranged from a basic human need.

What’s the objective?

Cucumbers and carrots have replaced the pieces on a chess board.

Our retail system shelters us from the realities of agriculture, keeping us blissfully ignorant of cosmetic imperfection; it keeps us satiated by stocking shelves year-round with our favorite fruits and vegetables, despite inhospitable local growing climates and short harvest seasons; it entertains our need for security by providing us with an unbelievable amount of choice (sometimes too much, which leaves us standing in a grocery store aisle wondering what the heck the difference is between two brands of applesauce when their ingredients are simply “apples”).

Keeping shelves stocked with hundreds of niche products at any given time—many perishable or stamped with expiration dates that stores must adhere to, not because of food safety, but for standards of quality—is wasteful and unsustainable. We benefit from this availability at the expense of those who have difficulty accessing food at all; those who rely on pantries to survive. Breadth and convenience are luxuries we could easily adapt to live with less of, but our sense of entitlement to retain these freedoms is deeply entrenched in the idea of modern consumer culture. 

In this particular game of buying and selling, we need to clarify for ourselves: am I playing solo, or on a team? Is my objective to collect the most and the prettiest pieces for myself, or to contribute sustainably toward mutual success?

Related Posts:

Re-Empowering Food in this Totally Confusing Modern World of Eating

Why We Need Equality and Balance, Not Growth

Sean is passionate about sustainability and resilience, and has worked with land trusts, food justice non-profits and universities’ offices of sustainability.

A tractor clearing cover crop on a large farm, while a flock of birds fly overhead
Photo by Red Zeppelin

Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Many Indigenous traditions heavily emphasize the need for balance. The Bible says that Jesus preached about the dangers of greed. Yoga teaches about the benefits that come through balance.

And yet, many of us and many of the world’s businesses and governments are still under the illusion that it is economic growth that shall save us. Here, I’ll try to debunk that myth and expose the fact that we need equality and balance more than growth.

Using Food To Debunk The Myth Of Growth

There is already enough food in the world to feed the current human population. In fact, the amount of crops currently produced is enough to feed the 9.7 billion people that are projected to be alive in 2050, according to research done by M. Berners Lee et al. in 2018.

However, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations have released a study concluding that 26.4 percent of the current human population of 7.7 billion people face moderate to severe levels of food insecurity.

Ecology teaches that an increase in food supply leads to an increase in population. If such an increase in food supply is more than the ecosystem can handle, the population is said to “overshoot” the ecosystem’s carrying capacity. What follows is a reduction of the population size that brings it back to the carrying capacity.

Growth of the world’s food supply won’t reduce food insecurity, and it may even cause more problems. Equally distributing access for all to food will reduce food insecurity, and reducing current food production levels while farming in more ecologically-friendly ways will restore balance to the environment.

Hundreds of bails of hay dot a barren landscape on an industrial plot of farmland.
Photo by Ivan Bandura

Translating The Lesson To Employment

In the U.S. before the stigma against women entering the workforce was lifted, it was common for the salary of a father to support the entire family. Nowadays, it is common for both parents to each work a minimum of one full-time job to support a family.

Theoretically, both parents working a half day each should be able to support a family. Fortunately, gender equality in the U.S. has increased since then. Unfortunately, the growth in hours worked has been largely nullified by an increase in socioeconomic inequality.

Increased spending is definitely a factor leading to the reduction of savings generated, but it is beyond a doubt that the main culprit is the fact that 2018 U.S. income inequality levels were at their highest out of the past 50 years. This has led to the richest 10% of citizens in the U.S. owning 63.5% of the nation’s household wealth, and 44% of the U.S. workforce aged 18-64 earning a low median annual income of about $18,000. And an article by The Guardian reports that the statistics for worldwide income inequality are even more extreme.

In short, growth in hours worked will not create socioeconomic stability. Increasing income equality will create socioeconomic stability, and decreasing our hours worked will restore our own mental and physical health.

Translating The Lesson To Renewable Energy

Wind turbines stand on top of a just-mown hill of dry grass.
Photo by Luca Bravo

There are countless studies out there that show that fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and usage leads to ecological damage, harm to human health, and climate change. However, when solar farmshydroelectric dams, and wind turbines are installed in the few ecological refuges left on the planet, they can cause harm too.

In short, growth in renewable energy production will not counter the impacts of fossil fuel usage. Replacing fossil fuel usage with renewable energy and reducing overall energy usage will help us to regain a balance between energy production and the environment.

Progress Over Perfection: Finding Balance as a Conscious Consumer

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it. ― Salvador Dali

Stones balancing vertically, backed by ocean.
Photo by Shiva Smyth

Until last week, I had forgotten the giddiness of buying something new. In my adult life, I haven’t found much joy in spending money on nice things for myself, instead finding satisfaction in scoring a cheap thrifted or found item. Excitement for me comes from being resourceful, and new and shiny objects carry the gratuitous weight of being both expensive and unnecessary—too precious to be put to use, and therefore pointless.  

For the last year or so, I completely didn’t care what I looked like: at work, solid shoes and flexible clothing was the way to go, and outside of work I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. So I used very little—no pampering lotions, trace amounts of shampoo, definitely no razors—I was au naturel and the lowest of maintenance. 

But last week I got hooked by an instagram ad. Those damn ads!! I thought about that featured $18 lipstick for a week, knowing I would eventually give in because, since I now knew of its existence, my life would not be complete without it. When I did (and I bought two, prompted by the incentive of free shipping), the flushing thrill was so fierce that I immediately wanted more. I could see myself throwing caution to the wind, no longer caring about the price tag or environmental impact, skipping away into a life of reckless indulgence in pursuit of that exaggerated gratification.

Three tubes of lipstick lined up before their color swatches.
Photo by The Honest Company

The pleasure of buying is powerful. 

The thing is—since my lipstick purchase, I have totally forgotten about it: it wasn’t necessary. It was the idea of the lipstick, the click of the “buy now” button, the curiosity and then the commitment to satisfying my curiosity, that was thrilling. I will experience a similarly disproportionate thrill when that package arrives and I am temporarily enamoured by the novelty of the colors and textures, which will probably inspire me to wonder how dreamy the other lipsticks in that series are. 

Happiness is an abstract and elusive state, one we all understand can’t be met by the superficial fulfillment of “stuff,” yet when tempted by a novel product, we suspend this rationale in the belief that it will get us there. The momentary exhilaration of cracking open the boundless potential of a new thing seems to bathe our environment in vibrant hues, promising a slightly more chiseled personal ambience and redeemed confidence. Single-mindedly we brush our concern for finite resources aside, just for “this one thing” that promises fulfillment. 

The exterior of an H&M store in a mall.
Photo by Psk Slayer


The side of myself that wants my hands in the dirt and never to encounter a shower usually overpowers the side of myself that finds restoration in makeup application and shoes that clack when you walk, but sometimes the dynamic shifts. When it does, I thoroughly appreciate Goodwill sprees and REI store explorations, sometimes even H&M (don’t tell anyone), and find myself indulging in random kitchenware like madeleine pans, ramekins, and chocolate molds—things that inspire me and fuel my creativity, but that I inevitably only use once.

Though I pride myself on needing less to be content and inhabiting a relatively slim margin of consumption, the allure of things—and occasional excess—does not escape me. It’s about finding balance, and a cognizant undercurrent that anchors your values to the inevitable ebbs and flows. 

When it comes to inanimate objects, we are adulterous. Our infatuations tire quickly. We crave fulfillment when we are empty, to pull us out of negative feelings, and stimulation when we are bored, to pull us out of apathy.  

Though our innate craving for novelty is clear, I don’t believe this drive is as inherently ravenous as we experience it today. Companies spend millions of dollars creating friction-free buying experiences and ads that appeal to our psychology, satisfying our desire for pleasure with unnatural speed and saturated stimulation.  

While we can shelter ourselves to some extent from this input, occasional straying is a part of the process. Perfection isn’t sustainable, but practice will eventually lead much closer to it.

Related:

How to Buy Less Stuff

Captive Overconsumers: Why We’re Stuck in a Cycle of Spending

How to Buy Less Stuff

When we hear statistics about how consumer activity is harming the planet, such as how the global fashion industry uses enough water in a year to satisfy the needs of five million people—93 billion cubic meters—while 87% of the fiber produced for clothing ends up incinerated or in landfill, our situation can feel pretty bleak. When we try to wrap our minds around how the same industry generates more carbon emissions annually than international flights and waterborne shipping combined, the problem feels so far beyond our power to influence, that we often don’t see the point in trying.

Here are my thoughts: rather than trying to envision what 93 billion cubic meters of water looks like, think about what 2,108 gallons of water (about 60 bathtubs-worth) looks like: this is the amount of water you will save by withholding your impulse to buy another pair of jeans. When you buy a cotton t-shirt second hand instead of brand new, you save 713 gallons of water. When you borrow a book from the library instead of buying one, you save 85 gallons of water. When you decide to drink one less cup of coffee, you save 37 gallons of water.

A round water tank stands on a raised platform in an arid landscape, beside a wiry tree.
A 2000 gallon water tank: each pair of jeans uses up this amount of water.
Photo by Casey Schackow

Focus on the water, energy, carbon emissions, and money you save every time you reuse, borrow, rescue, or say no to a product throughout your day—no matter how seemingly insignificant. One less paper napkin today? That’s something! 

Then imagine the cumulative results of your efforts over weeks and months and years: one less napkin a day adds up. Your consistent actions matter, for the sake of the marine animals you spare from wrestling with your waste, and the trees you decide not to wipe your mouth with, but also for the unseen resources needed to turn those trees into splinterless utilitarian amenities. Establishing life-long habits around reducing your reliance on stuff can truly make an environmental impact.

When purchasing:

Woman browsing a second-hand shop, between cabinets and tables.
Photo by Julien-Pier Belanger
  • Shop secondhand. Choose to shop at used bookstores (physical or virtual), thrift stores, repurposed furniture shops, and the like. The treasure is well-worth the hunt!
  • Don’t buy into trends. Purchasing a trendy item will only guarantee a quickly-cycling love-hate relationship with it.
  • Limit online shopping. Online shopping is clearly a rabbit hole that can swallow us effortlessly. If you know you’re prone to getting sucked in (who’s not?), proceed with caution, and limit the time you spend clicking around. 
  • Know what you want. Hone your unique aesthetic through a wishlist or vision board like Pinterest, that keeps tabs on things you desire. Your ideal world can exist within this framework so you can: 
    • reduce your need for physical trial and error while you pinpoint enduring passions and let transient interests evolve, revising your list over time
    • bask in uncostly inspiration without having to bring it to life if it proves unnecessary 
    • have a clear direction for your purchases and purchasing standards while organizing your wants in one place.  
  • Keep a list of things you need. When you stumble across something tempting, you’ll know whether you should entertain that temptation or shake it off.
  • Support eco-friendly brands. 
    • Don’t be fooled by greenwashed branding: imagery of leaves against zen color tones are not indications that the product is environmentally sound. Ignore vague terminology such as “all natural,” “eco,” or “green.” 
    • Look for specific references to how the product is made, such as “cruelty free,” “made in the USA,” or “made with 100% recycled material.” Look at the company’s website for details.
    • Look for certifications: Certified Humane, Green Seal, Energy Star, LEED, Fair Trade USA Certified, and USDA Organic Seal (though for small farms, this seal can be hard to attain, even with pesticide-free practices) among others.  
  • Sleep on it. Before making your purchase, give yourself a few days to think about whether you really need or want it. You will often find yourself forgetting about the item you wanted to buy, or being glad you didn’t spend money on something you didn’t need. 
    • We make so many decisions during the day, that we often develop decision fatigue: our brains become maxed out and more prone to making poor choices and impulse-buys. Sleeping on it can help you tap into a sounder perspective when you’re fresh in the morning. 
  • Buy what fits into your existing systems and styles. Be conscious of how your purchase will fit in with what you currently have. You don’t want to have to replace everything else in order for that addition to make sense in your home. 

A huge New England brick home stands at the edge of a sprawling lawn, immaculately kept.
Photo by Evan Dvorkin
  • Research how your purchase will impact the environment. It’s not just the amount of products we bring home that we must be vigilant about, but how we set ourselves up to consume. 
    • For example, Americans often buy homes that could house twice as many people as their family contains. If you’re pondering a life shift of this scale or smaller, consider how your new framework would need to be filled, and what habits would be encouraged.
    • For a house, considerations about both its structural impact (materials, construction, land use) and its functionality need to be made. How much energy will it require to heat and cool? How far is your daily commute? Can you walk or take public transportation to run errands? How resource-intensive will repairs be? If it is a seasonal home, how can you arrange to utilize it all-year-round to maximize its use, making its development more constructive?
  • Reduce your meat and dairy consumption. Many experts agree that this is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact (along with reducing the amount of food you waste). Though meat and dairy take up the overwhelming majority of our farmland (80%), they account for a small portion of our diet (18% of food calories and 37% of protein).   
    • Reducing our consumption of meat and dairy can prevent deforestation, extinction of species that rely on those ecosystems, decline of water and air quality, production of methane, spread of pathogens (mad cow, E. coli), inhumane treatment of animals, and blocked arteries. 
    • Companies like Impossible and Beyond Meat are doing incredible work creating plant-based meat that tastes and feels—according to many meat-eaters, including my mom—better than meat. These products are growing in popularity, now available at Burger King, Carl’s Junior, Dunkin’ Donuts, Cheesecake Factory, TGI Fridays, White Castle, Qdoba, Del Taco, Little Ceaser’s, Umami Burger, and Hard Rock Cafe (c’mon, In-N-Out, you can do it!!). 
A cow with a tag on its ear faces the camera. It stands in a pasture, backed by grazing cattle.
Photo by John Price

A word on good Intentions:

Whether or not you’ll put your purchase to good use is a hard thing to determine. You can define for yourself what “good use” looks like according to frequency over a period of time—but reality rarely aligns with our intentions.

In the past, enamored with a summer dress, I have rationalized, “If I buy this I will wear it a few times each season, whenever I have a day out with girlfriends,” planning on at least 13 solid wears over the next 5 years—still not much. In reality, this translates to wearing the dress once a year for the next two years, after repeatedly failing to grasp the mocking brevity of East Coast summers and the comfort of polyester shorts.

This then leads to my shouting, “don’t look at me!” every time I am confronted by this guilt trip-of-a-cloth-object merely ornamenting my closet. “You were too beautiful to expose to my sloppy eating,” I reason, and close the door to it, resolving to plan a day about town specifically designed for the use of that dress—one which doesn’t include sitting on grass, walking around (those shoes gotta match!) sweating, or consuming nutrients. 

It doesn’t happen. 

What’s more, with some passage of time, I no longer have the appetite for such a dubious hem length.

The stress I feel in the presence of this dress and similarly neglected inhabitants of my wardrobe is exactly what I was trying to remedy with their purchase, and therefore—they go in the donation pile. 

Pink polkadot chiffon summer dress hanging on a close hanger by a window.

We all know that styles change and our aesthetics, situations, and bodies change. So while deciding on a purchase, I suggest projecting your musings no further in the future than the next two years. 

If you’re someone who sits on grass, walks around, produces sweat, eats food, and likes to be comfortable, chances are that special occasion items, while enticing, will only be worn a few times at most. 

Since seldom are we so rational that we’re willing to forgo pleasure for curmudgeony logic—and since after 13 solid uses, the dress still would not earn its environmental keep—second hand shopping is the way to go.

Instead of purchasing:

  • Repair, don’t replace. It’s worth learning a few basic repair skills, but there are plenty of services that can revive broken possessions if you can’t yourself—a better way to contribute to the economy than to buy new products.
  • Maximize the resources you have. You can do this not only by repairing and caring for what you have, but by reusing and upcycling items that are considered single-use. 
    • Many of these items (plastic and paper cups, utensils, napkins) are so cheap to produce that they automatically come with our food—even if we don’t want them to. As a result, we view these “free” materials as nearly worthless, and they go from single-use resources to “zero-use” resources: how many times have you received a straw with your drink that you didn’t use, or a clean napkin that you threw away with the rest of your meal? The term “disposable” is then utterly literal, as these products are produced simply to be disposed of. 
    • To remind yourself not to take these materials for granted when you end up with them, remember that it isn’t just about the trees or oil that made them, but the finite resources expended as a result of their production and transport. Save them for later—they will certainly come in handy at some point.

Paper napkins in a glass cup - free at a cafe
Photo by Thirteen .J
  • Don’t forget about the details. Shave off excess-use where you can: get into the habit of showering less frequently, using less shampoo per shower, using one less sheet of toilet paper per wipe—you get the picture. For most people, precision isn’t the leading factor in habit formation, and we aren’t aware of how inefficient our actions really are. It’s worth questioning the methods behind basic daily tasks as we go about them. Especially over a lifetime of pruning, our endeavors really add up.
  • Organize “stuff” swaps. Have a shopping party with your friends (bring your reusable cocktail glasses!) where you gather and swap unwanted items.
  • Reduce the amount of food you waste. Become best friends with your freezer, understand expiration dates, practice eating the whole plant, inventory your fridge before you go grocery shopping, don’t shop on an empty stomach, make more frequent trips to the store, buy the ugly produce, make older food visible in your fridge, save your leftovers, cook creatively, learn proper storage technique, make soups, smoothies, and sauces, and compost!

As you buy and use, consider

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure 

Throughout your interaction with a possession, be conscious of treating it with care. Even if you don’t intend on keeping it, this will ensure others can enjoy it after you.

Utilize your Goodwills and Salvation Armys when it’s time for spring cleaning. Check what kind of items local shelters accept, or do a quick Google search for food drives, clothing bins, and other drop-off sites in your area. You never know what someone’s looking for—gently used underwear is even accepted at many places.

Recycle, but as a last resort 

Though it is wholly better to throw your recyclables in the recycling bin instead of the trash can, recycling is not the ultimate answer. 

Recycling provides the false notion that as long as we partake in it, we can accumulate as many paper bags, plastic containers, and aluminum cans as we want. In reality, recycling is not as effective as we may think: quality degrades as materials are down-cycled into new products, tremendous amounts of water and energy are used in the process, and much of what we put into our curbside bin does not get transformed into something else. 

Some of this is due to our misunderstanding of what can be recycled, and some is because the amount of waste we produce exceeds the market for this product. China, which until 2018 had been the main patron of our recycling, has drastically narrowed the margin of what that they will buy from us. 

An employee of a recycling center stares at towering piles of compacted recycling.
Photo by Vivianne Lemay

Instead of tossing a perfectly good paper bag into the recycling, first do your best not to obtain that bag (carry a reusable bag with you), and if you do land yourself with a paper bag, reuse it until it can’t possibly be used any longer. If you’re reusing that bag to carry recycling to your curbside bin, empty the contents, and continue to reuse it. Note: avoid using a plastic bag to contain your recycling as well—these jam up sorting equipment at your recycling plant. 

If you’re unsure of what you can recycle in your curbside bin, look on Earth911.com for details about what your municipal recycling center accepts, and how you can recycle items otherwise. There are many misconceptions about what we can and can’t recycle, so it’s worth doing some research to aid in our conscious purchasing of products, and disposal of trash. 

In summary

One of the most important things you can do for the environment is to reduce your consumptive behaviors. 

We don’t live in a vacuum! Paring down the amount of things you buy, collect, and rely on shapes the example you set for others. Your decisions influence those around you, whether you like it or not—and your choice to pursue productive and beneficial directions will ripple outward: the resources you save can accrue into an unforeseeable quantity. 

Maximize the resources you have, find joy from the old, shop second hand, buy in moderation, and reduce your meat and dairy consumption. If you are consistent with these habits, you will make a real difference—quite easily saving hundreds of thousands of gallons of water within a lifetime (let alone energy and carbon emissions) from being needlessly spent.

Related:

Captive Overconsumers: Why We’re Stuck in a Cycle of Spending

Progress Over Perfection: Finding Balance as a Conscious Consumer

Captive Overconsumers: Why We’re Stuck in a Cycle of Spending

A Small Stream Lasts Longer

My mom came to the States in the ‘80’s from China. Raised during the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, she grew up with the simple doctrine of caring for her possessions. Her family lived by the axium “a small stream lasts longer” (“细水长流”): this dictated they use their resources thriftily, learn how to maintain them, and treat them with respect in order to extend their life and value. “It’s Chinese tradition to conserve, even if you have plenty,” my mom says. 

This attitude didn’t just apply to carefully hand-crafted items that were made to last, but also to basic objects with seemingly little worth. She and her family would cherish what they owned, integrating it into their systems of living so it became indispensable. As a result, they needed and yearned for much less. 

My mom still treats her possessions this way, never tiring of her materials, which each fulfill their distinct purpose.

Superfluous Spending and the Economy

We are conditioned now to bring more into our homes and dispose of it quickly. Next to newer models and competing brands, once-exciting products grow stale to us within just a few years.

Most Americans would agree on the counterproductiveness of needless spending, while admitting to doing so quite regularly—it is something we are all guilty of in our pursuit of pleasure. Many of us rationalize this spending as a necessary evil for a strong economy; in reality this could not be further from the truth. 

The short-term economic gains associated with highly robust consumer activity actually impair long-term economic stability: by depleting our natural resources, we are damaging future economic systems that rely on the wellbeing of our environment, including our agricultural food system. 

Nothing could be worse for both the sustainability of our environment and our economy than uninhibited consumption. “The economic outlook of individuals, governments, and businesses alike, tends to be dangerously shortsighted,” writes Crissy Trask, author of It’s Easy Being Green. In the meantime, “vegetation, soil, fisheries, water, metals, fuels—without exception—are all being rapidly depleted.” 

Any business that doesn’t partake in sustainable practices and moderate resource-use, says Trask, “is a liability to the environment, the public, and the economy.” When you shop, aim to support environmentally-conscious brands and products that are built to endure.  

Buy Green, But in Moderation. 

Our call for eco-friendly products has given rise to a flourishing market of green goods, one of the fastest-growing global industries today. We have ourselves to congratulate! 

However, remember not to go crazy with these purchases either. Our efforts are made redundant if we buy every eco-friendly product out there, many with unnecessary niche applications. 

Those metal straws that have made their way into most eco-friendly utensil sets? Though definitely better than plastic, they also require resources to produce and distribute. The best alternative (unless you are very young, very old, or have a condition that makes drinking from a cup difficult) is to stop using straws altogether. If we reduce our reliance on material microprivilages that cost us almost nothing to kick the habit of, we can do a lot of good. 

We Are Attracted to Novelty, Not Materials

Many believe our excessive consumptive behaviors are a right that comes with living in a democratic and capitalist society—that enjoying life without limitation is what we work so hard to earn money for.

This conception that material possessions make us happy is now being challenged in many different ways. Mindfulness, gifting experiences instead of possessions, and the minimalist movement are all modern reactions to the raging consumerism that since the ‘20’s has gripped America and the world. There have been countless studies on whether materials are the key to happiness, and the overwhelming conclusion is that they are not the answer.

Humans have evolved a taste for novelty—a mechanism that helps us learn and adapt. Our brains react to novelty by releasing dopamine both when presented with a novel stimulus, and in anticipation of it.

When our brains exist in a world where novelty is everywhere (mass production, technological advances, cultural trends) in high concentration (cities, grocery stores, shopping malls), instantaneous (the internet), and unnaturally pleasurable (hyperpalatable processed foods), it’s no surprise that addictions exist and over-consumption is a common catharsis. 

Neurobiologists Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Düzel have found in studies about novelty, that “when we see something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way.” So we associate new things with pleasure. That is, until that thing becomes old and our attention drifts to something with more potential reward. “Novelty [is] a motivating bonus to explore an environment in the search for reward rather than being a reward itself,” say Bunzeck and Düzel. So perhaps what you’re looking for is not the third generation electric kettle, but the reminder that there’s more out there—inspiring you to upgrade your life and yourself. 

“With the Catching Ends the Pleasure of the Chase.” —Abe Lincoln

Lend me your imagination for a moment. 

Say you find some justification for purchasing a new commuter bike: you’ve had yours for a couple years and there are lighter models out there that could shave off a few minutes of your commute. You peruse the internet and local bike shops, just poking around at first, allowing yourself to imagine alternate realities of your ride to work. It’s fun, even inspiring to entertain your desires in this harmless way. 

But then you stumble upon a model that not only fulfills your exact wants, but is absolutely gorgeous! It’s teched-out, a level of quality befitting a true athlete. Your excitement crescendos: could you imagine yourself riding it to work, adopting this kind of cool into your life? Couldn’t you be an athlete, and wouldn’t this motivate you to work harder at becoming one?

It’s a bold purchase, maybe a little reckless—there are other priorities that could benefit from this money. But that bold commitment is exactly what thrills you. You’re about to make a decision to invest a chunk of change into a luxurious pleasure, putting yourself first, and prioritizing this want. You’re making a small and spontaneous dream a reality. It’s self-care, really.  

The thrill of diving in and grabbing life by the handlebars is intoxicating. When we are stirred to throw caution to the wind and live bigger and brighter, we feel revitalized. We’re all familiar with this feeling, as well as the liquid ease of experiencing a brand new piece of equipment—but we’re also familiar with how short that window of pleasure lasts, and how quickly we move away from our purchase’s regular use.

To extend this window, we often fall prey to the Diderot Effect—a manifestation named after a 16th Century French philosopher, who, triggered by a single extravagant purchase that derailed the balance of his entire amassed possessions, fell into a helpless spiral of material dissatisfaction. With new purchases, we sometimes find a sudden need to repair uniformity by solidifying the aesthetic of that item with additional coordinated purchases. In the case of your bike, you’ll need a water bottle holder, a sleeker helmet, newer reflectors, brighter lights, panniers, aerodynamic clothing, maybe even a larger phone for optimal GPS navigation. 

The drive to research, justify, and commit ourselves to each additional purchase is born in our chase for pleasure. Chasing material novelties not only fills us with dopamine, but gives us motivation and focus—the exact mindset that comes with reducing our reliance on material objects, as many minimalists attest to. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, authors of Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, write that “minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.” Not buying sounds pretty dopamine-filled to me. 

But you don’t need to become a minimalist to find some freedom from material burden. Consider how even small steps toward pairing down and streamlining your purchases can give you room to breathe. In the case of this bike, its extravagant tech is monetarily and environmentally costly, but also unnecessary: you now own a piece of equipment that you must maintain and protect, but that you can’t fully exploit—and you own the guilt associated with its underuse. Strive for what’s best for you, not the best that’s out there. 

Choice-Induced FOMO 

There are few things in life that deliver such instant gratification as shopping does, both through the chase and the reward. The ones I can name are all highly addicting (like shopping can be): social media, video games, food, alcohol, opioids. The other achievements we strive toward are either not guaranteed, or require considerable effort to attain—love, popularity, a respected job, economic stability, etc. Smaller wins, like growing a garden, painting a picture, or perfecting a loaf of sourdough still require time, effort, and mental bandwidth, so for obvious reasons we resort to the easy pleasures of buying. When the ease of buying abbreviates our anticipation to a fleeting day or hour, we move on to the next product. 

Yet another advent of modern retail perpetuates this cycle: overwhelming choice. How many times have you entered a grocery store on the hunt for a specific brand of jam, only to be led off track by the dozens of other options in front of you? Abundant choice leads us to second-guess our decisions, even if our decision was ultimately the best we could have made.  

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, writes,“What we don’t realize is that the very option of being allowed to change our minds seems to increase the chances that we will change our minds.” This wavering commitment of course impacts our experience of the product, leading us to tire of it quickly in search of greener pastures. This cycle is not only costly in many regards, but keeps us relentlessly unsatisfied. 

Our curiosity and desire to maximize our experiences propels us to want to experiment and test things out. Unfortunately our retail models aren’t commonly optimised for taste-testing, contributing to high rates of consumption and disposal. I’ve been guilty countless times of failing to make a decision and lavishly doubling up on several versions of an item. Our perpetual “fear of missing out” (FOMO), and the energy it takes to make a decision amid the distraction of so much choice, keeps us chasing the untapped potential of the items we left on the shelf.

So How Do We Buy Less? 

We can combat this addicting cycle of short-lived, high-definition pleasure and inevitable dissatisfaction by being aware that… 

  1. we navigate a modern world with an ancient brain. Our instincts tell us to want more. 
  • Action: support green brands in moderation and remember that future economies will thank you for your modest spending. Buy the best thing for you, not the best that’s out there. 
  1. we thirst for novelty, not materials. Saturation and convenience leads us toward material goods.
  • Action: look for novelty in the form of experiences, and remind yourself of the tenuous rewards of buying before you make a purchase.
  1. the chase is more pleasurable than the result
  • Action: prolong the chase and aim for meaningful results by recalibrating your goals toward non-material pursuits. Consciously take on projects with the understanding that the journey is as valuable as, if not more than, the result. Note: remind yourself that because our brains have been trained by modern instant gratifications to wander quickly and balk at areas of resistance, you might experience discouragement at lower thresholds, when extending the chase over longer periods of time. Persevere through small frictions, as they’re a natural part of any process and will lend to a more rewarding experience.  
  1. waffling is a product of FOMO. When you purchase, be aware that the doubt and diminished satisfaction you may feel is likely a psychological reaction to choice. 
  • Action: commit to your decision. Schwartz says, “knowing that you’ve made a choice that you will not reverse allows you to pour your energy into improving the relationship that you have rather than constantly second-guessing it.” Rather than using comparison to evaluate your item, consider that item independently of others. Once confident that your decision was made thoughtfully, adopt it into your home with welcome arms. Remind yourself that your choice may very well have been the best choice, even if your opinion of it is swayed by the temptation of what you have not experienced.   

Though rationalizing ourselves out of instinctual behaviors can feel like an uphill battle, we can reduce the strain by minimizing our exposure to the competitive world of material objects. Instead, look for greater pleasure from activities and projects, while consciously narrowing your focus to perfecting, maintaining, and finding beauty in what you have. Like my mom, treat your possessions with compassion. 

Related:

How to Buy Less Stuff

Progress Over Perfection: Finding Balance as a Conscious Consumer

Re-Empowering Food in this Totally Confusing Modern World of Eating

This is a re-post of a piece I wrote when I worked for Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a food rescue nonprofit that serves the greater Boston area. Lovin’ Spoonfuls recovers food from grocery stores and farms that don’t meet shelf-standards, distributing it to local hunger relief agencies.

The majority of my waking experience at this point in my life is consumed by interactions with food. I spend hours a day in the kitchen cooking and eating, meal prepping and playing tupperware Tetris in my fridge corner—practice for the daytime dance of box truck organization. I handle food all day for work as a Food Rescue Coordinator at Lovin’ Spoonfuls, and in my personal life I consider it my environmental responsibility to accept, consume, and enjoy any food that is offered to me if its alternative fate is the trash bin. I have always been heavily food-motivated and relentlessly hungry, but I have never been so conscious as I am now of my choices.

I have recently regarded my approach to eating to be quite as alien as the habits of my roommates and friends, who experience the world of food with drastic contrast: some eat only one meal a day, some eat the same things every day, some don’t snack, some practice intermittent fasting, and all prioritize and avoid certain foods over others. Though food is a universal need and pleasure, our relationships with it are growing more complex and more singular.

A cornerstone of physical, emotional, and cultural fulfillment, food easily becomes a source of struggle when it is too sparse or too plentiful, too cheap or too expensive, too yellow or too green. Efforts to find balance between our reliance upon food and our consequent vulnerability to it can be exhausting amid distractions of healthwashed products, hectic schedules, and the disparate parallel food journeys of those closest to us.

“What’s the difference between these two applesauces?!”

Our eating behaviors are motivated by countless factors—natural preference, social influence, culture, body image, emotional wellbeing, hormones, dietary restrictions, ethics, practicality, budget, accessibility, fondness for cooking, simple habit, etc. It is incredibly difficult to discern with confidence what a healthy relationship with food looks like in the context of our unique bodies. 

In this globalized and fast-paced world, many additional considerations interfere with our ability to follow our nutritional instincts: time limitations, stress, dietary trends, ever-changing scientific conclusions on nutrition, the instant gratification of the supermarket, choice overwhelm, the abundance of processed junk masquerading as food, omnipresent advertising, and idealistic beauty standards. 

On top of this, we are exposed to a version of fruits and vegetables that are heavily engineered by the food industry to achieve similarly idealistic beauty standards, skewing our understanding of produce norms. This produce is often selected from pools of less shiny food grown in industrial and monocultured fields that emphasize uniformity, durability, and yield. The impacts of such farming operations lead to soil erosion, chemical pollution, and staggering water use, occupying tremendous swaths of land while reducing genetic diversity—but we’re not talking about that…. 

Small farm veggies and fruits in comparison to these herbaceous supermodels can seem feeble, ugly, even gross to some. At a food access nonprofit I worked for a few years ago, a group of children visited our urban farm for a tour and taste test—many of whom had never experienced local organic vegetables. They sampled our freshly-harvested cucumbers and tomatoes, comparing them to Market Basket cucumbers and tomatoes; we waited for their reaction. 

A string of ripening cherry tomatoes hanging from a twisted stem
Cherry tomatoes growing in the urban farm’s greenhouse.

“Eureka, I DO love vegetables!”… was never exclaimed. Instead, our farm veggies were too “cucumbery” and too “tomatoey” for their liking. This was at first seriously disheartening: the pervasive blandness of watered-down crops were robbing children of the pleasure of healthy food, while reinforcing the acceptance of mediocre eating standards and the unsustainable practices behind much of that food. Quality (by my definition of nutritiously rich, ethically produced, and vibrantly tasty) had clearly been flipped on its head, replaced by the aesthetically pleasing products of industry giants.  

When a Flavorful Cucumber Isn’t a Better Cucumber 

Really, the kids’ reaction made complete sense. If supermarkets—conveniently placed and moderately priced—are all that are available to you as a child, your palette will form around these concepts of food: a flavorful cucumber, then, is not necessarily a better cucumber. This for me was a clear demonstration of how strikingly each person’s relationship to food can differ, based on upbringing and exposure. 

Disparities in value placement and food preference are highlighted everyday on the road at Lovin’ Spoonfuls. The most expensive and sought-after Whole Foods products are often the most commonly rejected when offered to beneficiaries. Superfood blends, kombucha, and plant-based burger patties are strange and inaccessible to those unfamiliar with not only these products, but the branding and lifestyle associated with them. 

Pricy, organic, non-GMO, two-ingredient products are not favored by all.

Subjective opinion is a part of our job that is both complex and fascinating. When it comes to food safety, we work with our partners to remove any question marks we can, based on ServeSafe policy. However, there is still immense space for personal interpretation around “what is food” and “what is compost.” Carts of apples that have been left out of the cooler overnight, boxes of cut broccoli that smell like broccoli, pallets of carrots that have met their expiration date, are too often fated for the trash instead of a food pantry: faulty preconceptions around food storage, food decomposition, and date labels lead store employees to assume these products are no longer safe for consumption.  

It is essential that we as consumers proactively learn and educate each other on proper practices around food safety and storage, as well as on the consequences of wasted food. To reduce food waste, this knowledge needs to be widely spread and applied, at the grocery store, at work, and in our homes.

Love That Ugly Food

My mom subscribes to Imperfect Foods (a Bay Area-based rescued food delivery service), and when she forgets to pre-select her weekly bounty and is sent a package with a variety of what she considers “leftovers,” she is irritated by it. This makes me laugh, because I certainly get her annoyance—as consumers, we are conditioned to feel ripped off if we receive substandard products.

But at the same time, I gripe, “Mom! Isn’t the whole point of subscribing to Imperfect Foods to reduce food waste by embracing the weird veggies of the world?” I want her to reframe her mindset to be joyous of the lopsided potatoes and celebrate their character. I want her to feel empowered to be the recipient of these veggie rejects, as she is doing something great for the planet. I want her to question where the twisted carrots are if all she receives is shelf-standard produce, and to feel relieved when she finally sees them in her delivery. 

A collection of gnarled, twisted, extra-limbed carrots - "imperfect" produce - lying on a washing station table

Perfect food standards are by definition unsustainable. 40% of food will continue to go unharvested at farms, rejected at grocery stores, and tossed from our fridges because of this demand for unnatural perfection. 

When I buy food from a grocery store, I intentionally grab the bruised pears, dented can of beans, or milk nearing its sell-by date. I would rather spend my money on “imperfect” products if their trajectory may be the trash (aren’t these products cuter anyway?). If we as a society start to curb our negative associations with dinged and wonky produce, and renew our appreciation for food of all shapes and sizes, we can feel pride in the way we shop and investment in the ingredients we cook with. 

Lovin’ Spoonfuls’ beneficiaries are pioneers in this movement: for by accepting and distributing food that is not perfect, and educating their constituents that broccoli just plain smells weird when it’s cut, they are infusing food with value that over the years has been diluted. Re-empowering food, cooking, and eating is of utmost importance not just for the environment, but in our experience of life as well; when we nurture and nourish around a shared table, there is incredible potential for the strength of community and vibrancy of culture.

How Restrictions During Coronavirus Can Ignite Long-Term Environmental Healing

With coronavirus challenging our sense of security, we naturally feel a loss of control. When we fear for the safety of loved ones, and even when our basic routines are disrupted, we are reminded of the delicate nature of what we consider familiar. 

As with most things we can’t control, there isn’t much we can do now except wait for it to pass—and as we fulfill our foremost obligation to socially distance, this wait can feel frustratingly passive. But if we have an opportunity to actively contribute to another critical pandemic concern, why not take it? 

Coronavirus has provided us leverage to secure our footing in eco-friendly living with a momentum we have perhaps never had. We have demonstrated the selfless ability to mutually forego consumer pleasures and adapt to a tightened environmental footprint when it counts. We’ve done the hard part when it comes to greenifying: starting. Let’s kick our conscious commitment up a notch, and piggyback off this energy to keep it going in times of stability.

Now’s the Time to Build Green Habits

Since these lockdowns started, there has been a global shift not only in CO2 emissions associated with the temporary friction on spending and travel, but also in our attitudes toward what we need and want, use and waste. We haven’t all proclaimed with sudden clarity that a life of minimalism is the way forward, but we have begun to look at our resources through a different lens, assigning more value to what we have. 

Despite the tremendous amounts of farm-level food waste that has resulted from closures in the hospitality business, a shift in consumer mindset is, in my book, a huge environmental win. We have the capability to carry this mindset with us into the future, long past the chaos of this crisis.

The power of combined action is evident in China, where rates of coronavirus have dwindled; a trend soon to be followed in the US. Peaking death tolls provide evidence of our collective elasticity and our ability to put others before ourselves. When we emerge from our shelter-in-place mindset, I dearly hope that we continue to recognize the presence of excess in our lives, and the social, environmental, and spiritual benefits of rising above it.

Most techniques for green living are highly applicable now, in our time of obligatory self-sufficiency. If you can, get in the habit of buying your soaps, shampoos, and cleaning agents in bulk (or make them yourself!). Don’t rely on a constantly-replenishing supply of paper towels and tissues, but replace yours with cloth napkins and handkerchiefs. If you have a yard or even space for planters, grow your own vegetables and herbs. Conserve your resources by treating them with care, using only what you need, and reusing what you can. Learn DIY skills to make and fix, reducing your reliance on having to buy and replace. 

We can fight lifestyle simplifications, or take them in stride; hate them, or have fun with them. Rather than thinking of our temporarily compromised lifestyle as restricted, think of it as focused. Eco-friendly living is not limited—rather, it is guided. 

Environmental progress spurred by coronavirus can perhaps lend some purpose to what can otherwise feel like meaningless devastation. If we neglect to build on this progress, the feeling of futility that has paralyzed individuals for decades will continue to prevail: we need to quash this debilitating doubt by doing what we now know we can—making lasting repairs to our planet, one home at a time.

The Pitfalls of Constant Availability

In 2020, we live lives of instant gratification. If we need a specific ingredient to cook with, our local supermarket is likely to have it at any given time, down to that niche product and specific brand; if we don’t feel like stepping out the door to do our shopping, we order it online. Buying was never easier. 

Photo by Nathalia Rosa

When it comes to shopping for food, our expectations for bottomless availability is leading us down an environmentally-destructive path. I spoke in March with my former manager, Lauren Palumbo, about food waste at grocery stores; Lauren is the Chief Operating Officer at Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a Boston-based nonprofit that diverts food from the waste stream, redirecting over 16,000,000 pounds of excess food from retailers to food-insecure communities to date. 

To meet consumer demand, grocery stores “over-order, overstock, and are always prepared because they don’t want to lose that customer,” says Lauren. “As recently as 40 or 50 years ago, that just would not have been the case. But I live in New England and it’s March, and I can get pretty much anything at the grocery store that I want, whether it’s coming from down the street or halfway across the world.” 

This supposed progress has led our food system in a dire direction. “It is just not a system that allows for clear predictability about what consumers buy,” Lauren says. What consumers don’t buy ends up in our waste stream, contributing to that statistic you may be familiar with—the 40% of food that is never eaten. This means the massive amount of resources that go into growing, processing, packaging, transporting, storing, marketing, and selling almost half of our food (food that could provide valuable nutrition to those who have difficulty accessing it) are pointlessly depleted. 

We have accepted this constant availability of supply as a fact of our consumer culture, something we are entitled to. The idea that it is a relatively recent evolution of our lifestyle is something we should continue to remind ourselves: as we are seeing during this pandemic, such consumer convenience is not automatic. Despite the reliance we have developed upon this system of excess, we can clearly exist with a reduced version of it. 

In fact, in order to advance our food system in a way that fits sustainably with our lives as mortals dependent on the wellbeing of our planet, we will need to move away from it. To do so, “it would take a really significant shift in the way that we think about how we produce and order and secure our food as consumers,” says Lauren. “I think as long as we as consumers understand that we want high quality and we want things to be available all the time, we are driving that problem. And I don’t think food is the only place where that happens. If you look at a Marshalls or a TJ Maxx or something like that, it’s happening there for the exact same reason as it does with food, it’s happening with retail in a different format.”

During this time, when our lives have turned sideways and we adjust to new ways of consuming, we are given an opportunity to re-evaluate what it costs to sustain our system of supply, and what drives our level of demand. We can learn from the crisis we face right now and, aided by this perspective, equip ourselves to prioritize environmental health. 

Push Forward  

The unfortunate reality is that we need the extremity of a pandemic to spur us to environmental action: the extremity of our warming planet is too abstract for us to feel. If we can collectively choose to take our impending environmental emergency as seriously as we take an emergency that is undeniably upon us, we will be able to keep it from becoming the kind of tragedy that we are currently experiencing. 

Inaction is largely a product of doubting the importance of our contributions: though our culture has entertained a steady crawl in the right direction, an unacceptable majority of us have yielded to this feeling of powerlessness. Not unlike the battle that presently consumes us, the state of our earth leaves no more room for procrastination. We now have proof that when we buckle down and do our part, our individual actions can contribute to beating a global catastrophe. 

All we have to do in our fight against climate change is expand upon and integrate isolation-friendly habits of moderation into the flow of our regular lives, tweaking them to fit feasibly into the long-term. 

Sustaining a reduced footprint doesn’t have to be as uncomfortable as the shock of our suddenly-imposed isolation—environmental diligence isn’t a grueling, time-consuming slog. Once you develop personalized systems to support your modified routines, you will question how you have lived otherwise. 

Continue to take ownership of your role as members of society and our ecosystem. Harness this momentum.

Should We Follow Expiration Dates?

The presence of date labels has for decades baffled us into making overly cautious purchasing and eating decisions. According to Frank Yuannas, a deputy commissioner at the FDA, confusion over date labels accounts for 20% of household food waste in America. As consumers, we are the single largest source of food waste postharvest—producing more from our homes than restaurants and grocery stores combined. 

Though consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about the arbitrary nature of expiration dates, we still get skittish when our awareness is put to the test. In the face of a looming date, our knowledge seems to evaporate: fridge-side, we ponder what to do, engaged in silent moral battle, summoning up courage that leaves in a moment, untrusting of our nostrils, debating how much a bottle of milk is really worth, combing through our rolodex of negative interactions with food, wondering how long we’ve been standing there. Then with a cringe and heavy sigh, we inevitably say goodbye to our bottle of milk; it looked a little sad anyway. 

Though we know better than to take the phrase “expiration date” literally, we fear to deviate from what we’ve been led to believe the stamp on our milk so clearly instructs. We hanker for a guide to follow; a clear-cut affidavit of whether we can eat our food with confidence. 

I am here to say there is no better authority to provide that information than you. Many of us are stuck on the notion that it takes nerve to rebel against the guidance of the date label. But sniffing out freshness doesn’t require the experience of trial and error. It isn’t a skill we learn: it’s a skill we’re born with.    

Some Background

Date labels available to consumers today were originally intended for the retailer as a guideline for freshness: before dates were stamped on product packaging, they were referenced from a chart as a measurement for when product should be rotated out. In the progressive 1970’s, consumers grew antsy about the lack of information around the food they were buying—they wanted these dates open to the public to help them qualify the safety of their food. 

When date labeling hence became public, consumers interpreted these numbers as a determination for when food was no longer safe to eat. No one was there to clarify that their purpose was to suggest a period of peak quality: something that revolved around taste and sales rather than consumer health.

Date labeling is subjective

  • Except on infant formula, date labeling is not federally regulated and there is no authority enforcing a single standard
  • Labeling laws vary state to state
  • Dates are determined by the food manufacturer, and methods of deriving dates vary from manufacturer to manufacturer
  • It is in a food manufacturer’s best interest to keep their date window narrow, as there is financial incentive for peak product freshness and to encourage the frequent purchase of their product 
  • Shelf life cannot be tied to any predetermined date—storage is a big factor in how long a product will remain fresh
  • Companies will perform taste tests to determine their dates. Smaller companies that can’t afford a taste test will base their dates off a similar product from another company, hoping their product’s quality arc will parallel with that of the other product. 

This process is far from scientific or precise, yet we throw our milk out the day after the date has passed, as if by rule. Of course we do—no one wants food poisoning, those dates look awfully official, and the word “expires” that we associate with all date labels is ominously grim. But, as up to 40% of food in America is wasted while 1 in 8 Americans are food insecure, and since we know that these dates are irrelevant to food safety, it is important that we make a conscious effort to look past these preconceptions and treat our personal food waste as a rare occasion. 

How Date Label Confusion Contributes to Food Waste

  • Over 90% of Americans are tossing perfectly edible food by misinterpreting date labels, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic’s study on how date labels influence food waste. 
  • Roughly $900 million worth of passed-date food is wasted each year, according to the NRDC and Harvard Law’s study.
  • Customers are unwilling to buy products that are approaching these arbitrary dates. When that troublesome date then arrives, these unsold products fill the retailer’s back dumpster—daily
  • In America, over a third of food that’s wasted is done so after it has reached the hands of the consumer 
  • This is not only a waste of money (and of farmer labor), but of our finite natural resources that are used to grow, process, distribute, and store our food. Tossed food is also harmful to the environment through the needless expenditure of chemical pollutants and greenhouse gases, including the creation of methane gas when food decomposes in landfills. 

This fragmented system is clearly not working. Luckily there is some action being taken toward establishing uniformity among how date labels are presented. The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a conglomeration of over 400 of the largest food corporations in the world (including Campbell Soup, Kellogg, and Nestle), have committed to conform to one date format. For perishable goods, “use by” will become the standard, and one for shelf-stable goods, “best if used by.” These changes are to be made by 2020, so we should see them already rolling out.

Freeing Yourself From Imposed Conceptions of Value and Worth

  • Trust your senses! Humans have been cooking for over 1.9 million years and have evolved to possess magnificently fine-tuned tools to help us survive. These complex biological systems have made it simple for us to detect if food is edible: 
    • use your eyes to check for slime or mold
    • use your nose to test for off-smells
    • use your mouth for a small taste—you can always spit it out if it turns out to have gone south!
  • Get creative; be resourceful. Open your imagination to different recipes and techniques of cooking. Most food grossness that is the result of a longer storage stint is only skin deep—you can cut off the mold on cheese, the split in a tomato, the soft spot of an onion. With food that you wouldn’t want to serve in a salad, make it into a soup, a smoothie, or a pesto—and freeze the leftovers to get to when you’re ready!
  • Make the most of your money and use every edible part of your produce! Why toss the stems of mushrooms or even the greens of carrots or beets? These can all be eaten! 
  • When you’re at the grocery store, search for the bruised pear, nicked cucumber, or dented carton of milk, as these will be the last to sell and first to be trashed. Don’t buy into the hunt for perfectionism—perfectionism is a construct of marketing and commercialism, and isn’t relevant to growing delicious and healthy food.

Retailers and Date Label Food Waste

Not only does date labeling produce a tremendous amount of waste in households, but at the grocery store level as well: food retail protocol requires that items be rotated off the shelves by their sell-by date. Working at a food rescue organization where a considerable portion of the donation we received from grocery stores was their nearly- “expired” food, I was thankful that these batches were lucky enough to have a chance at the dinner table. Most food however, is not so fortunate, and I came to deeply resent the undeserving clout these numbers have acquired. 

Note: Though grateful families have a chance to eat this donated food, the portion of food rescued from the waste stream is still painfully small. The “excess” produced by retailers that are already frequented by food rescue organizations can quickly exceed that organizations’ capacity to capture and transport; the excess produced by the millions of vendors around the world that do not donate continues to go to waste. There is no shortage of food to supply donation programs: as we produce enough food globally to feed 150% of the world’s population, quantity is not the issue, but the ability to connect this food with those who need it.

Food Rescue Coordinator, Deb, weighs a box of recovered food before handing it off to a hunger relief agency.

Customers often steer clear of groceries on their sell-by date (down to packaged raw vegetables that require only a sense of vision to know whether they’re edible), opting instead for the fresher option. In anticipation of this, stores will cull food within a few days of their date—sometimes even a week or two in advance, if newer replacements are available. 

This is not to mention the mountains of food discarded daily for reasons unrelated to date labeling: over-ordering, periodically flipping shelf displays, redesigned packaging, receiving the wrong item, rotating seasonal stock, fulfilling corporate contracts for shelf space when demand for that product is low, manufacturers testing out new products, manufacturers producing too much of a product. In these cases, the date on this trash-bound food can be a year or more away. 

These internal retail issues are more difficult for us to influence. But when it comes to date labels, we can start to curb the trend of retail-level waste by purchasing that item on the last day of its date. This is both to ensure the item isn’t gratuitously thrown away, and to communicate to the store that there is no need to prematurely discard these products. 

Our Disconnection From Natural Processes

Date labels don’t protect us from food poisoning. They provide an excuse for us to erase any opportunity to question edibility by removing our food from the picture at its peak quality. Date labels protect us from witnessing the southward turn that perishables inevitably take. 

Our reliance on date labels betrays an interesting aspect of our psychology. What we fear as much as stomach upset, I think, is the possibility of confronting fermenting food. 

The proliferation of date labels in the 1970’s came as a result of consumers feeling disconnected from their food. Unfortunately, date labels have left us even further removed: so much so that we are both afraid of merely encountering food’s natural breakdown, and incapable of disagreeing with expiration dates when our instincts tell us otherwise.

I have friends who are so revolted by addressing mold or odor that they dump the entire container of food in the trash—tupperware and all. Though unlike our canine companions we’ve thankfully evolved an aversion to decomposing food, the function of this instinct is to keep us from ingesting it. We are sophisticated enough to get past the fact that it simply exists, and once in a while in our refrigerators. 

In an age of obsessive cleanliness, we—Americans in particular—have grown more and more averse to natural processes. This results in daily showers, single-use plastics, denying that we fart, and a pettiness around aging food.  

I have a better way to remove the threat of exposure to diminished freshness: eat your food!

Stop living in Fear

At home, I don’t look at date labels at all. If you’ve forgotten when you purchased an item, there’s no harm in checking the date for reference—but unless you live with multiple people with whom you share groceries, this should be a rare need. 

I am quite liberal with what I’ll eat, perhaps more than I would recommend for others. But I have never once had food poisoning from the many-months-expired food I’ve tried. The only bouts of food poisoning I’ve had in my life happened to come from just-bought items that were well shy of their expiration date. 

There is simply no point to live in fear of food poisoning. There is no point in having a rational understanding that your yogurt is fine to eat, yet still dropping it in the trash because you’re afraid of “taking the risk.” If it smells off—by all means, compost and recycle. If it doesn’t, remind yourself that the environmental consequences of nullifying the production of both that yogurt and its packaging is real, especially when multiplied over the span of your life in the form of a habit. 

These consequences reside in the methane that enters our atmosphere, the land that’s stripped of its top soil, the water that’s lost in growing and manufacturing—and on and on. Because we don’t see the costs of throwing our food away, it’s our responsibility to remember these costs throughout our interaction with food: as we shop, when we plan our meals, when we consider eating out instead of eating what we have, as we decide whether or not to throw our food away. If you uncover a fermenting meal in your fridge, don’t beat yourself up about it—just compost it and learn from your mistakes. 

With practice and application, you’ll overcome your trepidation and feel confident in living free of date labels. Trust your senses: if it looks ok, smells ok, feels ok, and tastes ok, your food is ok to eat.

The Meaning of Date Labeling Decoded, in the Words of the USDA:

  • A “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.  It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.  It is not a safety date.  
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described below.
  • A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

More Resources:

Check out Natural Resources Defense Council’s page on food waste.

Check out the USDA website for more information on date labeling.

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