A few pieces of related news have scrolled past my eyes in the past week. The first wasn't really news because the article cited data published in 2017. But I hadn't seen this information from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. According to trended data from the EPA, Americans thew out a record 40.7 million tons of food in 2017, which is almost double the figure from 1995. Our population has only grown by 22% over these 25 years, so it appears we are getting more wasteful over time, at least as measured by the amount solid municipal waste recorded or reported. And this doesn't capture all the food that is lost - not consumed by humans anyway - in the system, all the way from the farm through to the dumpsters behind food stores.
I probed a bit into the consumer responsibility around reducing food waste in a Talk to Me About Food podcast about a year ago. The random group of women I spoke with were genuinely concerned and claimed to be consciously taking steps to reduce food waste in their households. These women were doing at least 20 of the 37 things to lessen waste on a list I compiled from various sources including the USDA and EPA. People say they are shopping the fridge and pantry before making shopping lists. They say they are creative with perishable ingredients. They admit that they could do more, like storing food better, but you would think we would be doing better over time, not worse. As I mentioned in the earlier podcast, the time and budget pressures of running a household, especially one with kids, makes it difficult to find the time and attention to consistently do the little and big things to keep food out of the garbage. I read a summary of a just-published academic paper which underscores the challenges we face as consumers trying to reduce food waste.
"Towards a multi-level framework of household food waste and consumer behaviour: Untangling spaghetti soup" (Mark Boulet, Annet C. Hoek, Rob Raven) proposes a comprehensive model of factors that influence the amount of household food waste. There are micro (individual) level factors like attitudes, kitchen "skill" level, life experiences, and financial resources, then meso (household) factors such as composition, interdependence, and the physical attributes of the dwelling. Finally there are macro (outside the household) considerations. Workplaces, schools, social networks, social norms, and climate, for example. These all seem reasonable. The thing is, it's not a linear process of influence for any of us. There are feedback loops that can both reinforce and inhibit food waste-reducing behavior. If this dynamic model is accurate, it's hard to predict how much or how little food waste any one household will produce at any point in time, or over time. This tangle of influences seems to have caused more of us to produce more food waste over time, not less.
There's hope, I think. The global pandemic has forced many of us into the kitchen. More of us are spending more time in the kitchen than maybe we ever have. We're being forced to reconsider what we buy, how to make meals, and how we dispose of stuff. We're more "intimate" with our food and piling-up trash, so perhaps more willing to make the extra effort not to create food waste. And many of us are having to economize. Making the most of what we have in our fridges and pantries saves money too.
There's hope outside the home too. Too Good To Go is an app that is all about reducing food waste. It is a platform that connects restaurants holding food about to go to waste with hungry eaters looking for a good value and looking to good at the same time. Too Good to Go has made a mark in Europe and was launched in NYC a month ago, according to Eater.com. Some 15,000 eaters have signed up already to save up to 67% on items that are left over at the end of the day at 250 restaurants, cafes, and food stores.
Reducing food waste is everyone's problem. The other headline that recently caught my eye announced a broad commitment from food manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers. Food Dive reports that 200 companies have pledged to cut food waste in half by 2030. This is ambitious. And necessary.
But reducing food waste starts and ends with the consumer, from what I see. You and me. More than anything it means a mindset change for many of us. From an expectation of "plenty" to satisfaction with "enough." A mindset driven by "plenty" invites over-production and over-consumption. It also excuses wastefulness. Meeting the demands of "enough" should reduce the amount of food available to waste. We would likely also be more selective about what we buy, favoring quality over quantity, which means we could be more inspired to make the most of the food we've got in the fridge, in the pantry, and on the plate of take-out food in front of us, instead of throwing it out.