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Health Hack #62 - The Unseen Issues of Food Waste

The Landfill Dilemma

Roughly 40% of our nation’s food ends up in a landfill.  

This basically means that 40% of our food supply is either unsold, or prepared and uneaten. Unsold could mean a number of things - crop failures, defective products, shifts in demand, or poor judgement by sellers to name a few. It can also refer to packaged products that have expired. On the other hand, prepared and uneaten is fairly straightforward. Grocery stores and restaurants toss out an unbearably overwhelming amount of prepared food. Many individuals, in a nation of excess, tend to do the same, either while dining out or at home.

Despite the list of reasons above, it’s still hard to rationalize such a staggering figure. Are we under-eating? This could help make better sense of the fact that two fifths of all of our produced food hits the landfill. As noted in last week’s article, given our obesity epidemic, we don’t appear to be under-eating by any stretch.  

Are we overproducing? This is a trickier question to answer. We’re certainly overproducing the types of foods that we need the least. Should these onerous pseudo-foods begin to fade, demand for real food would rise, subsidies promoting the mono-crops (like GMO wheat, soy, and corn) needed to proliferate pseudo-foods would shrink, the production of real foods would increase, and the prices for the foods we need the most would drop, making them more accessible to the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Production is a function of demand. As long as we continue to seek out garbage as a society at large, garbage is what we’ll get.

At the end of the day, we feel more like a nation that has simply come to take things for granted. In this case, that being food. It’s so cheap and so available in so many cases, that it becomes less revered. As things swell in ubiquity, their perceived value can begin to diminish. The word famine is basically extinct from our modern day vocabulary, and now that it is, few seem to think twice about throwing food in the trash.

The totality of that key 40% statistic amounts to two overarching unfortunate truths. The first is that we’ve become more and more indifferent to the notion of wasting food. This is a psychological conundrum that I’m in no position to speculate on. But in my observations, very few people possess any semblance of guilt or even hesitation about throwing edible food in the trash, or watching as their refrigerator accumulates with things that are beginning to rot and spoil.

The second truth, though as concerning as the first, is likely more correctable in the nearer future. This is the notion that as a collective society, we’re not remotely mindful about how we manage our waste.  

Why we accept that wasting 40% of our food supply is ok, and how we go about handling that 40% are two very different things. The first, as just noted, is more psychological in nature, and therefore requiring of immense time and effort to resolve. But the second carries pragmatic approaches that can be implemented as early as today; and ones that if taken up in practice, can really mitigate the damage of a cultural psychology that remains indifferent to wastefulness. In other words, if we were to adopt better solutions to how we manage our waste, then the damage created by our wasteful behavior has a far less egregious impact on the environment.

Practical Solutions

The most straightforward, and likely accessible option for improving our waste management, is to compost. If what we’re consuming can be grown on a farm or in a home garden, then it can be composted. Short of a carnivore diet, it’s likely that most of your waste fits this criteria.

It’s important to take into consideration that of the 40% of food that makes its way to a landfill, there is a decent amount allotted towards food constituents that we humans find inedible. Banana peels, egg shells, avocado skins. Anything that we peel: potato skins, vegetables leaves and stalks, etc. This is an important caveat, because while you may not find yourself throwing away edible food, your landfill footprint may still be higher than you’d suspect.

Composting solves these issues beautifully. We may not be able to make dietary use of every part of every plant grown in a field, but the field certainly can. We can consume what nourishes us most efficiently, and effectively donate whatever we don’t finish - plus whatever we’re incapable of eating - back to the earth.

Composting is easier than meets the eye, even in an urban setting. It need not require a humongous bin in an outdoor location that is capable of tolerating horrific odors. There are a variety of opportunities available for each type of dwelling, and a great starting point for exploration can be found here and here.  It's safe to say that a noteworthy difference can be made, regardless of one's home situation.

On a personal level, my food waste management begins with backyard chickens. As I’ve covered in depth previously, chickens (among other farm animals), in addition to being wonderful egg layers and companions, double as living, breathing garbage disposals. One man’s trash is every chicken’s treasure. Aside from the site of the yellow bag containing their mealworm treats, there is nothing that perks up a flock more than a bag of scraps and leftovers. Any veggies, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are more or less indiscriminately enjoyed. This is also true of much of the waste created by the parts of foods that we don’t eat - the peels, the shells, the leaves, the stalks.

What’s particularly rewarding, is that the more their diet becomes predicated on real foods, the more nutritious their eggs become. A pale colored yolk, often found in conventional egg cartons in the grocery store, is indicative of poor dietary and living conditions for the birds, which translates to a lower nutritional value of the entire egg, primarily within the yolk. When their diet consists primarily of real foods, it’s a win-win-win. The chickens, the humans, and the planet are all the better for it.

Learning to embrace leftovers in a new light is something that can also reduce our waste footprint. The idea of eating the same dish two nights in a row can rub many the wrong way. But it isn’t that difficult to make a few choice tweaks that turn a leftover into something new.

I grew up in a home that hosted Thanksgiving dinner every year. Every Black Friday, our fridge was filled to the brim with leftovers, namely turkey. But we never bothered trying to emulate that Thursday meal again over the course of Thanksgiving weekend. Instead, we’d make open face sandwiches, and maybe use some different sides. Or treat the turkey as a cold snack, or maybe even use it as a protein on a salad.  

There are times when a certain dish is bound to yield immense leftovers, and we wind up with a Thanksgiving scenario despite not cooking for a crowd. Cooking a whole chicken for a small family, for example. Again - it isn’t all that difficult to treat the leftovers differently, giving them the feel of a new dish, rather than a tired retread. It simply requires a bit of a thought and effort.

Why Does this Matter?

There is a lot of finger pointing where the world of food intersects with Climate Change. As we delved into previously, there is disinformation perpetrated by vegan-leaning organizations about the toll that animal agriculture has on the planet. And to be fair, the same is also true in reverse. At the end of the day, mono-cropping, GMO’s, and factory farming are all destructive practices that we need to largely curb, if not do away with altogether in the coming future.

Where all camps can surely agree, is that the amount of methane produced by food waste in landfills is quite troubling. There is no honest way to skirt around that issue. And this happens to be a human problem that we’re all probably responsible for to some degree, regardless of our dietary preferences.

Last week we began working on a theme. If we’re going to speak virtuously about sustainability and global health, then we need to start with ourselves and our actions first and foremost. Becoming more mindful about how we manage our waste is as good a starting point as any.