The cost of what we don’t eat

Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that, if we don’t act now, we’re on track to see global temperatures increase 1.5 degrees Celsius as early as 2030, leading to more severe storms and flooding and more extreme heat waves and droughts.

The usual suspects behind America’s outsized carbon footprint are, of course, to blame — particularly an over-reliance on fossil fuels — but there’s one very big hurdle that’s often overlooked: food waste.

The U.S. wastes 40 percent of its food supply. Let that sink in. Almost half of the food in this country goes uneaten and finds its way to a landfill, incinerator or even into Baltimore’s Jones Falls, and that food waste is a big contributor to climate change. In fact, if we were to consider food waste its own country, it’d be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the U.S. And the environmental impacts extend beyond climate change. We’re wasting water, energy and land to grow crops that just end up at the dump. Some of it may end up in places like Baltimore’s BRESCO incinerator, which spews pollutants into the air that are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

And this leads me to the other public health concern surrounding food waste: food security and nutrition.

About 12 percent of Americans struggle with food insecurity and undernutrition, but it’s not from a lack of available food, given how much we trash. In fact, we tend to overproduce and oversupply food, leading not just to increased waste, but to overconsumption and the growing obesity epidemic. And while some foods are in high supply, we lose healthier foods like fruits and vegetables before they even reach the grocery store because it might look “ugly." Does it really matter if our produce is perfectly symmetrical? I bet we could get more likes on Instagram with a conjoined apple than that weekly Saturday morning latte.

So what can we do about it? At the individual level, we can start by planning our meals, taking stock of our perishables and managing our portions. But we need to make bigger strides at regional and national levels as well.

Locally, we need to support programs to reduce or better manage our waste. We need to fund programs that help educate families, schools, restaurants, grocery stores — really anyone who handles food (so everyone) — about food waste and what to do with extra or leftover food. We need programs to connect businesses with local food banks to make sure extra supplies of food feed those in need and not the rats in the back alley. We also need to improve how we manage the waste by establishing composting programs for our communities and cities, alongside regular trash and recycling pickups. I’m delighted to see that Baltimore City was recently awarded funding and selected as a location to launch an initiative targeted at reducing food waste through educational campaigns and composting. But we need to start implementing these programs everywhere.

At the national level, we need to tackle some of the underlying causes of so much food waste. One of the biggest reasons we discard so much food is because we’re worried our food has gone bad and we don’t want food poisoning. That’s a legitimate concern, one I know I’m certainly guilty of possessing. Much of the fear is driven by those “best by” and “sell by” date labels we see on food, but these labels aren’t standardized and don’t necessarily reflect the actual shelf-life of our food. The solution? We need to establish federal standards to label our food clearly and consistently so consumers can make better informed decisions before tossing something in the trash.

And after all of this, if the environment isn’t enough to convince you, or you think climate change concerns are overblown, I leave you with one final data point: The average American family of four wastes $1,500 worth of food a year; that’s more than six weeks’ worth of groceries for most of us.

Can you afford to throw that away?

Kira Burkhart is a student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; her email is kira.burkhart@jhu.edu.

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