Redirecting food waste

Saving money and solving the global food crisis

Edible food waste in Leonard Dining Hall’s tray returns, Queen’s University.
Edible food waste in Leonard Dining Hall’s tray returns, Queen’s University.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

The current political crises in the Middle East and North Africa have fuelled soaring oil prices. Since food production is critically dependent on oil inputs (not just for transportation, but also for fertilizer production, operation of farm machinery, and the like), the price of food is also skyrocketing. If this keeps up, you may find yourself taking a bigger and bigger hit on every grocery bill.

This food price increase is just one symptom of the growing global food supply-and-demand “crisis.” By 2050, the global population is predicted to rise to 9 billion, and a 70 per cent increase in food production will be needed to feed these new mouths. (1) Discouragingly, though, increases in food production are declining slowly each year. The increasing numbers of droughts and floods aren’t making things any better. As a result, leaders around the world are up-in-arms over how to resolve such food-production issues.

In my opinion, however, there’s one statistic that suggests food production is not the real issue here. The real issue is food wastage. The UN Food and Agriculture organization estimated in 2008 that half of the food produced in the world is wasted (2).

Although society has sadly failed to see this, food is wasted all the way from when it was produced, to the time it is eaten.

I recently bought four fresh bell peppers on sale at Food Basics for $0.79. Why were they so cheap? Because they weren’t as perfectly-shaped as their peers. In fact, vegetables with less-than-ideal figures don’t usually even make it to the grocery store. Most are left rotting on the fields where they were grown. Between 10 and 37 per cent (3) of the food produced on farms is wasted in this manner, even though it’s all perfectly edible. With an impending food crisis, society would do well to quickly get over its “vegetable-beautification” fetish.

Food can also be wasted after it has reached the market, in areas such as retailing, food service and consumption. Those of you who’ve ever worked in a grocery store will know what I mean. Each day, after closing, the store staff dump out shopping-cartloads of perfectly edible produce, simply because the food was past the labeled “expiry date.” It’s truly a heartbreaking scene.

d waste is also a huge issue in the Queen’s cafeterias. In the 2008-2009 school year, I led a group of students dedicated to reducing cafeteria food wastage. We tracked food wastage in Leonard Hall, and found that it wasted three to four4 tonnes of edible food per week (4).

True, a student-run organization called Soul Food does deliver some overproduced food to homeless shelters around Kingston. And yes, the MCRC Green Team is currently promoting a trayless campus, an idea that has been shown to reduce food waste by 25 to 30 per cent (5) at universities across North America.

Both of these initiatives are excellent remedies for the dining halls’ short-term food-waste woes. But Soul Food doesn’t start every year until early October (students need the time to organize). And going trayless is merely a band-aid to conceal, but not heal, the underlying haemorrhage: excessively expensive buffet-style cafeterias, avoidably wasting truckloads of food day after day.

It’s truly a shame, not to mention foolish.

First, wasting food is an enormous financial burden, not just for Queen’s, but for industry and families in general. US food retailers, for instance, collectively discard US $30 billion worth of food each year (6). Households in the UK annually waste over £10 billion (CDN $16 billion) worth of edible food (7). In addition, the wasted food needs to be disposed of, which presents an additional cost. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates the annual societal cost of food waste disposal to be over US $1 billion (8).

Wasting food also represents a profound disregard for the energy, water and other resources required for food production. Studies in the USA have found that simply reducing that nation’s food waste in half could reduce its ecological footprint by 25 per cent (9).

Finally, there is a moral imperative to not waste food. Over one-sixth of the world’s population is chronically hungry (10), but the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that just five per cent of the US’s annual food waste can provide a whole day’s meal for four million Americans (11). Here in Kingston, thousands rely on food banks and homeless shelters for their daily calories. Even us students are not immune to food shortage—The Queen’s AMS food center provides for countless fellow students each year. Thus, it is immoral for us to be wasting our food and feeding landfills, when excess food could be directed towards feeding those in need.

Given that food-related issues are so systemic, and that reducing food waste can simultaneously help improve so many societal issues, why isn’t Queen’s—and society as a whole—frantically trying to reduce food waste? One reason could be that it’s much easier to ignore food wastage. It’s easier and more politically attractive for politicians to call for greater food production than to probe deep into our food distribution systems to pinpoint ways to reduce wastage. It’s also easier to quantify food production, and much harder to quantify the amount of food saved by reducing waste. And of course, calling on citizens to expend more effort not wasting their food (or do anything that seems hard) is simply out of the question.

But to fix such global issues, we need to stop doing what’s easy for a while, and start doing what’s right.

I urge every Queen’s student to do your part, and reduce personal food waste at home and in the cafeterias. By planning ahead of time, eliminating personal food waste is realistically achievable. And in the cafeterias, we can always choose to take only as much as we can eat.

I challenge Queen’s Hospitality Services to transform our cafeterias from the wasteful, industrial buffet system into one which saves both students and Queen’s money by charging only for what people consume. During this transition period, a temporary, whole-campus trayless system wouldn’t hurt either.

Finally, I hope our political leaders will look beyond simple increases in food production, and actually focus on reducing food waste. Right now, 50 per cent of the world’s food is feeding six billion people. If we can save the other 50 per cent from being wasted, feeding three billion more will be a piece of (un-wasted) cake.

At the very least, it will help soothe the stress of that weekly grocery bill.

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(1) Le Maire, B. (2011, March 14). How the G-20 Can Prevent a Food Crisis. Retrieved March 20th, 2011 from: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/03/14/how_the_g20_can_prevent...

(2) Jacquot, J. E. (2008, August 22). Study Finds Half of All Food Produced Worldwide is Wasted. Retrieved March 20th, 2011 from: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/08/half-food-wasted.php

(3) World Resources Institute (1998). Disappearing food; How big are postharvest losses? Retrieved March 20th, 2011 from:
http://www.wri.org/publication/content/8386

(4) Personal communications with Queen’s Students Against Wasting Food, September 2009.

(5) The Associated Press. (2008, August 25). More colleges chucking cafeteria trays: Institutions striving to save water, energy — and money. Retrieved March 20th, 2011 from: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26390055/ns/business-personal_finance/

(6) Oliver, R. (2008, January 22). All About: Food waste. Retrieved March 20th, 2011 from: http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/09/24/food.leftovers/index.html#cn...

(7) BBC News. (2008, May 8). Food waste on 'staggering' scale. Retrieved March 20th, 2011 from:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7389351.stm

(8) United States of America. Environmental Protection Agency. (1999, December 1). Waste Not, Want Not: Feeding the Hungry and Reducing Solid Waste Through Food Recovery. Retrieved March 20th, 2011 from: http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/organics/food/fd-basic.htm – pg 7

(9) Oliver, R. (2008, January 22). All About: Food waste. Retrieved March 20th, 2011 from: http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/09/24/food.leftovers/index.html#cn...

(10) UN World Food Programme. (2010). Hunger. Retrieved March 20th, 2011 from: http://www.wfp.org/hunger

(11) Kantor, L. S., Lipton, K., Manchester, A., Oliveira, V. (1997). Estimating and Addressing America’s Food Losses. Retrieved March 20th, 2011 from the US Department of Agriculture, Food Review: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/foodreview/jan1997/jan97a.pdf – pg 3

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