I think about food a lot. It’s my job. I am fortunate enough to work for an amazing nonprofit that is at the center of Pierce County’s emergency food system. Each month we give away more than a million pounds of food and each month, over 100,000 visits are made to emergency food sites throughout the country. We may not see the images of hunger and malnutrition in the U.S. like we see in developing countries, but we have a real food problem. Food is a basic human need and, I would argue, a basic human right. But for too many people in the United States, healthy food can be a luxury. As I see the cost of living in Tacoma on the rise, I can only imagine how many more people will find themselves unable to afford basics such as housing, transportation, and food. And yet we have an abundance of food and money in this country. The problem isn’t a lack of resources, it is about the resources being distributed unequally throughout the country. And yet, with so many wondering where their next meal will come from, most of us throw away food every single day.
Food waste is a problem for a number of reasons. On the personal level, it is a waste of money. I would never throw a $5 bill in the trash, but if I throw out $5 worth of groceries I’ve actually done worse than that. Growing food takes resources including land, water, and human labor. By wasting food, we disrespect the work farm workers went through to produce something (many of them in less than ideal conditions). We waste the water that was used to grow, prepare, package, and transport the food. We waste the land that was used to grow the food and the trees that were cut down for farmland. We create pollution because trees were cut down to create farm land (no longer able to absorb CO2), and finite resources were used to make that food available to us. It is also a sign of indulgence that we buy food we cannot eat and throw it away so easily. I will admit I am guilty of all of this. Of course, throwing out less food doesn’t necessarily mean it will end up in the hands of those who do not have enough. But there are some steps you can take to reduce waste and benefit your community.
- Buy less food! I am totally of guilt of buying too much food because I want to feel like I have plenty. I also forget to plan for nights when I won’t be able to cook, meaning spinach may sit in the refrigerator longer than it should and it will have to go to waste.
- Grow your food: If you have the space, grow food for yourself. Eating locally is a great way to reduce CO2 emissions from transportation, and it doesn’t get more local than your own garden. (If you find yourself growing too much you can always take it to your local food pantry).
- Use ugly food: Learn to use food that may be past its prime. When my vegetables are going bad, I’ll throw them in a large sauce pan with some spices and coconut milk making my (subpar) version of curry. I also got to make a really great pie the other day after a flat of berries fell to the ground at the local farmers market. They would have gone in the trash, but I got to take them for free and bake them into a delicious pie (if I do say so myself).
- Volunteer and donate: If you have the time or funds, get involved in causes you care about. It is easy to dehumanize people that visit food pantries as “those people” or an other, but we are all equal people deserving of dignity and respect (and food). Living a less consumer based life is good for the planet and can help us as individuals spend money on junk we don’t need. Why not give that money back, benefitting the planet and your community all at once.
- Compost: I plan on getting a compost system set up soon in order to really reduce my food waste. Ideally, I would use everything I buy, but most food still generates some scraps (like banana peels or potato skins) that can be used in compost. Waste has the potential to generate new life, which is pretty cool if you ask me.
Food is a complex issue. It is tied to human rights, animal rights, the ecosystem, poverty, wealth, and culture. It is an essential need in its most basic form. But how and what we eat is also a part of our essential needs to express ourselves and be a part of a community. As I address food waste in my personal life, I will share more tricks of what worked. Until then, I urge you to learn more about hunger and food waste in your community and to use that knowledge to do something.