When it comes to reducing food wastage, it’s similar to the old adage about teaching someone to fish: if you give children leftovers you will feed them for a day, but if you teach the children how to reduce food wastage, they will save the planet. Here’s why.
Too Much Food is Being Wasted
Food wastage is a modern problem that ranges across the fresh food supply chain from growers to home garbage cans. A number of inefficiencies related to the handling of the produce from harvest to retailers are the causes of the waste of up to 30 percent globally and 40 percent in the USA of the food produced for human consumption.
A report from FAO (2013) discusses several food wastage figures, comparing wastage data with other data that serve as indicators of the magnitude of the problem. For example, the CO2 produced by food wastage is the third top emitter, after the USA and China. Thirty percent of the land designated globally for agriculture is used to produce food that is never consumed. If it were translated into money, $750 billion would be wasted every year. To put it closer to home, the average family of four loses $1500 on food never eaten.
The FAO divides the food wastage by the five phases on the food supply chain:
Postharvest handling and production
I dedicate my efforts now as a freshness management consultant, as well as some emerging companies to help reducing food wastage related to agricultural production, post-harvest, processing and distribution by identifying inefficiencies and providing the guidance to companies to reduce shrinkage.
However, very little is done on the consumer side, with this sector representing more than 31 to 39 percent of the total food wastage in the EU, North America, Oceania and Industrialized Asia (China, Japan, and Republic of Korea), all of which are considered middle-and high-income regions. Much lower income regions interestingly have wastage of 4–16 percent, according to the FAO report.
Food Wastage is a Domestic Problem
Forty percent (in some regions) of food wastage is a problem that cannot be overlooked, which is why we must pay attention to household food wastage. Food that is wasted at homes has gone through more processes, transportation, storage, cooking and home refrigeration or freezing. This is one of the reasons the consumption phase has the highest carbon footprint of the total food wastage (37 percent of the total).
According to a report by the NRDC, food wastage at the consumption phase is not equal in all places in the world. The domestic waste in developed countries (Europe and North America) per capita varies from 210 to 250 pounds per year, whereas in developing countries (sub-Saharan Africa and South or Southeast Asia) is only 13 to 24 pounds per year per person.
One of the leading contributors to the domestic food wastage is the heterogeneous regulation on expiration dates and the confusion that they generate. 80 percent of the US consumers and 20 percent of UK consumers declare that they discard food prematurely due to the confusion around these labels (NRDC).
Food Wastage Education Must Start at Home
While at university completing my PhD, through all the lessons I learned and taught…through giving presentations, creating posters and attending conferences, I saw that, through the power of teaching, we can positively impart the right knowledge and lead by example.
The importance of education is critical since we have the ability to introduce positive wastage reduction habits at the household level. Such habits can be reinforced with relatable examples and understandable data that people can understand to be made aware of the cost of food wastage.
For example, the water required to produce food products can be compared to the equivalent in shower minutes. For instance, did you know that wasting one pound of cheese is the equivalent of wasting the water from 122 minute long shower? That’s a lot of water!
One school tried another approach to dramatize the scope of food wastage. The State University of New York at Delhi demonstrated the amount of food wastage after lunch time by showing it on a display along with the cost. As a result, there was a decrease in food wastage of 1000 pounds per week and 0.2 pounds per student (NRDC). Also Save The Food is an initiative from the NRDC that actively advertises ways of reducing food wastage at home.
According to the NRDC report, and in my experience, older generations that have experienced civil or world wars and have experienced hunger waste less food – 84 percent of Americans over 65 years old waste less food than the average American. 53 percent of people surveyed in 2015 said they throw away leftovers at least weekly. This number increases up to 70 in houses with children (NRDC).
I spent many summers with my grandparents who survived the Spanish civil war and the postwar period. They knew firsthand what hunger was. Food was a precious commodity. I will always have in my mind my grandmother planning the meals for the week – even two or three weeks – and doing the grocery shopping according her plan and telling me to finish the food I have on my plate. She would say “that we will have for dinner what we don’t eat for lunch.” My grandparents were forced to be masters on reducing food wastage and they both taught me and showed me by example how I can also reduce food wastage. They taught me that hunger is not good and the food you waste costs effort and money.
Some Suggestions to Reduce Food Wastage
Here are some tips you can apply to reduce your food wastage at home:
Don’t buy with your stomach, buy with your brain.
Buy with a plan in your mind and a list in your hand for the meals you will prepare.
Rapidly freeze the leftovers you will use in the long term.
Refrigerate the leftovers that need refrigeration and you will use in the near term.
Use the technology available in the best manner possible – keep fruits, vegetables and proteins appropriate compartments in your refrigerator. The crisper, for example, keeps produce fresher longer.
Know what you have in your refrigerators and pantry and manage the time the food stays in the refrigerator.
Eat accordingly as you see the food begins to approach spoiling.
Don’t trust expiration dates, they can be highly inaccurate.
Learn from previous mistakes and observed food wastage at home.
Recycle all the food you can. Place green veggies on water when they are wilt or soften to freshen them up.
Remove the plastics! Fruits, vegetables and cheese are better stored with wax paper.
Buy ugly…it’s as nutritious and tasty as beautiful produce.
Buy in bulk as much as possible. It will optimize the portions and reduce unnecessary packaging.
Spread the word. Teach your children. Lead by example.