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Food Waste: By the Numbers

Food Waste: By the Numbers

In my first post of the New Year, I discussed how I was focusing on love and food waste. When I started to write the post, I knew I was going to have write several posts about food waste because unfortunately, there is so much to discuss.

So in this post we are going to explore the numbers. Fair warning the numbers are shocking and pretty sad, but I believe that by understanding the numbers we can wrap our heads around how to tackle the challenges.

40% of the food we grow gets wasted in the US

800px-Treasure_trove_of_wasted_food_sm.jpgHow does that happen? Let me tell you the story of lettuce in January. Your first reaction may be wait, lettuce in winter? We instinctively know that salad in January doesn’t feel like “winter” food and yet 80% of lettuce consumed east of the Mississippi River in January, which is two-thirds of the US population, roughly 215 million Americans, is grown in…Arizona. Yes, the most arid state in the country produces an over-whelming majority of the most delicate, least travelable vegetable we produce. Lettuce. Think about it. All the water, which is the heaviest thing to move, moved from the Colorado River to fields in Arizona to a vegetable that is 96% percent water. Then lettuce is moved to trucks to travel let’s say to New York. It’s over 2,330 miles from Arizona to New York. Remember you are going to lose a large percentage of the lettuce in transit and then once it gets to New York it is going to sit in a distribution center for up to six weeks. Are you incredulous as I am?

So let’s do some math. I’m from Alabama so I am going to make this easy. Let’s say a semi-truck is heading to the east coast. It holds 10,000 heads of lettuce. The wholesale cost of each head is $1.00. Four thousand heads are going to be lost. One truck load loses $4,000 worth of lettuce. Don’t worry the farmer, he has calculated the cost into his wholesale price, but 4,000 heads of lettuce that could feed children in need are going to be lost.

Let’s look at it another way. The average American eats 11 pounds of lettuce a year. To get 11 pounds into you, farmers grow 15.4 pounds of lettuce. Let’s say there are 215,000,000 average American lettuce eaters. That means 946,000,000 pounds of lettuce goes to waste each year. That’s almost a billion pounds of lettuce thrown away each year and an overwhelming majority part of that will go to the landfill.      

Now think about the gas, the petroleum-based fertilizer, the emissions from the diesel gas semi-truck, the drilling to get the gas, the petroleum-based plastic to package the lettuce, the coal-fired or natural gas electricity to move the water to water the lettuce, so we can throw away a billion pounds of lettuce each year. Does this feel like we are honoring the gifts God has given us?

The blame rests on all of us and none of us

green-waste-513609_960_720_sm.jpgWe didn’t intentionally set out to be lettuce wasters. In fact, most Americans have no idea where lettuce comes from or that the average piece of food travels 1,500 miles in the US which it means our food is better traveled than most Americans. We just let a large industrial system solve getting food to our plates in a way that made the most money possible for them. Don’t get me wrong I am all about capitalism and people having work, but business majors will tell you efficiency saves money which is good for profits. Moving lettuce from Arizona to New York, Atlanta, Chicago or Washington DC doesn’t feel like there is any efficiency, because efficiency means you reduce waste. Our food system is the absolute opposite of efficiency.

Whenever I present this topic at a church the gasps are audible in the audience. I don’t expect you or me to solve this problem of 1 billion heads of lettuce lost each year. I do ask that you consider being a small part of the solution. No one intentionally wastes food, but we do look for convenience. So let’s focus a bit less on convenience and more on waste.

Here are simple steps to reduce food waste:

  1. Plan your meals and shop based on your plan. This will not only help you make better decisions while shopping but should reduce what you spend.
  2. Buy in bulk. How many half empty juice boxes have you thrown away? Get kid sized water-bottles and pour your juice in those. Yes, the kids will have to keep up with them but not only will you reduce waste of juice but also single-use disposable plastic. We’ll tackle that in 2019.
  3. Speaking of juice, why not dilute it? Reduces the sugar intake for your kids and the amount of juice you have to buy.
  4. Shop local. I know I say this all the time. Most grocery stores and even Wal-Mart are now letting you know how far that piece of fruit or vegetable has come. Support the local growers and the stores will buy those more often. Stores don’t really have an agenda when it comes to where food is from, they just want to sell it. So love your neighborly farmer and support his or her efforts.
    Not finding it at the store? Look for a local farmer’s market. Support a farmer with a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share purchase. Drive 20 miles out of the city to a local farm stand. Better for you to drive 20 miles than have a semi-truck drive 2,300 miles.
  5. Have a week where you measure the waste after each meal. I know this is a bit goofy but you can create a chart and weigh each persons waste at the end of each meal. This will not only make you more aware as the meal preparer how much you should cook but it will also teach each member of the family how much they are wasting. By being a better judge of how much food you need to prepare you will be a better shopper. If you get super motivated try to get your church or school to do this, even if it is only one meal.   
  6. Use smaller plates. I know that sounds crazy but dinner plates have gotten 38% larger since the 60s. Want to know why America has a diabetes epidemic? Here is one reason. Treat yourself to vintage plates from a thrift store or use the lunch plates from your everyday set for your dinner plates. Small portions plus less food equals less food waste.
  7. What are you going to do with the money you save? Track your grocery store bills for three weeks before you switch and then after. Did you save anything? Most people will. Some will not, but for those of you who save, what are you going to do with that savings? Save for vacation? Maybe tithe the savings? Maybe buy some food for the local foodbank? It’s up to you but for those who do save, live more abundantly by lessening your food footprint burden.

pexels-photo-89267_sm.jpgFinally, there are two videos for you to watch. One I made, the other is a very hip production from the University of California. Then take one more step and share the hip one with your social media contacts. Food waste, this one we can all do and sharing it is the fastest way to make a bigger impact. 

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