Miguel de Cervantes

We celebrated the holiday season with an abundance of food. Roasted turkeys, sweet potatoes, greens, pumpkins, cranberries, pecans, wine – it would be unthinkable to omit the wine!

Some traditional holiday foods are those we don’t eat. For instance, some great-grandmother on one side of our family passed down a recipe for fruitcake-like cookies that have a half-life of a Hostess Twinkie. Everyone nibbles on one to be polite and insists that I really don’t need to bother with them next year. We toss the bulk of these cookies into the trash come January.

Of course, nearly all of the food we ate this holiday season came from a grocery store. It was beautiful food. Kroger heaps its bins high with out-of-season and exotic produce, not to mention the seasonal fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Food no longer has a season.

We pick out only the best to take home. Marred, oddly shaped, or irregularly colored produce stays behind. We study those “sell by” dates as though they are an oracle. Every once in a while, we purge our pantries and fridges, laughing about the discovery of new life forms while sheepishly wishing we hadn’t wasted the money or that we had planned our meals a little better.

Food waste Is No Laughing Matter

One-third of all food grown for human consumption either spoils or is thrown out. Here in the United States, we waste more than that – a full forty percent of the food we grow. Half of that waste never even leaves the farm because it isn’t considered attractive enough: misshapen carrots, undersized pears, crystallized honey, apples with dimples, scarred squash, mutant strawberries, off-color tomatoes. These fruits and vegetables have nothing at all wrong with them except that we humans have assigned them a ridiculously high standard of beauty.

Conservative estimates are that people throw away 20% or more of the food they actually buy. Imagine walking out of the grocery store with four or five bags, dropping one in the parking lot, and not bothering to pick it up. That’s essentially what we do.

Ugly Food Waste is Thirsty Business

Wasting food wastes the resources that create that food. Agriculture sucks up 80% of our nation’s freshwater supply, so when food goes to waste we waste all that water too. And in some places right here in the United States, fresh drinking water is disappearing.

Consider California’s Central Valley. More than 230 different crops grow there, amounting to nearly half of America’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The Central Valley accounts for one-sixth of the nation’s irrigated farmland. Four trillion gallons of water a year disappear from underground aquifers and its river basins.

Desert irrigation in the Central Valley

Practically no snow has fallen in the Sierra Nevada mountains for several years, so snow melt has not replenished the Central Valley’s water supply. Groundwater levels currently sit 100 feet below average. There is no water to flow through irrigation canals. In some parts of the Central Valley, the desiccated land subsides by more than two inches every month due to a lack of water. Crops deplete not just groundwater, but deep water wells, and a third of these crops never even leave the fields because they aren’t pretty enough for grocers to stock. Meanwhile people in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, who depend on that same source for water to drink and to bathe in, ration it and pay steep penalties for use deemed “excessive.”

Waste from food animal production also impacts our environment. We have all probably heard that the Buffalo River watershed is threatened by a farm that needs to dispose of 7 million gallons of hog manure a year. That project involves a single large farm. Because of the pollution from this one pig farm, the Buffalo River has experienced unusual algae blooms this year. Now imagine that sort of effect on every stream in America from hundreds of thousands of animal farms.

The Environmental Impact of Food Waste

Growing and transporting all that wasted food spews out a staggering amount of carbon emissions. Wasted food is the single-largest contributor to U.S. landfills, and correspondingly to the methane emissions that result from them.

Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers from these wasted crops have polluted the streams of the Missouri-Mississippi River systems. The second largest marine “dead zone” in the world is at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizers in the runoff from farms become more and more concentrated as they move downstream and collect still more fertilizers from more farms. By the time the Mississippi reaches the Gulf coast, this soupy brew causes recurrent algae blooms. Decomposing algae consume the oxygen needed to support aquatic life. Fishing boats and shrimpers have to travel farther from shore to harvest anything. The ecosystem of the polluted shores no longer sustains the wildlife it once did. The Gulf dead zone has now grown to the size of the combined states of Connecticut and Rhode Island. It is easily visible in satellite images because the toxic, hypoxic waters appear murky and brown.

Food Waste Can Beget or Resolve Food Waste

Vegetable crops are not the only wasted food. Meat raised for human consumption is wasted at an alarming rate. Twenty percent, or about twelve billion chickens, pigs, and cattle, are raised, fed, watered, and slaughtered for food but never eaten. Raising an animal from birth to table is incredibly expensive in terms of the food it eats, the water it drinks, the labor to care for it, the space it requires, the time it takes to grow, and the drugs used to keep it healthy.

We grow enormous amounts of grain to feed the animals we eat. Imagine the savings in resources, water, and pollutants if the animals we eat were fed on the food we waste. Two food consumers are doing just that: Rutgers University in New Jersey donates dining hall food scraps to a local cattle and hog farm, and MGM Resorts in Las Vegas donates food scraps from its casinos and restaurants to a local hog farm. Imagine if more businesses and farms cooperated like this.

The Cost of Food Waste

Worldwide, nearly a trillion dollars worth of food is wasted every year. In 2015 the UN’s task force on global food insecurity reported that nearly 800 million people – one-eighth of the planet’s population – are chronically undernourished. The food that currently feeds landfills could feed the 800 million hungry people in the world twice over. And we are throwing away forty percent of our perfectly edible meat, vegetables, and fruits. Poverty and logistics create food insecurity, not scarcity.

When we think of starving families, we think of places like war-torn countries and times of famine. We think of Syria, where humanitarian aid is prevented from reaching bombed-out cities. We think of Yemen, where families have to choose which children to feed and which to allow to die. We think of that Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a starving Sudanese toddler, crouched in hunger and despair as a vulture stalks her.

We don’t think of developed nations. We do not think of the fertile American South and we certainly don’t think of our own neighborhoods.

But one in every eight American families struggles to put enough food on the table. During the school year, the only meals the children in some of these families get are the ones served at school. As much as a fifth of Mississippi’s population has trouble finding affordable, nutritious food. Arkansas’s numbers are slightly better, but before we say “Thank God for Mississippi,” we should recognize that one in four Arkansas children cannot grow and develop normally because they don’t get enough to eat. Single parent families, the working poor, and senior citizens tend to not have enough food, while Pulaski County discards more than 100,000 pounds of food daily.

Reclaiming Ugly Food for the Hungry

We must put this wasted but perfectly edible food into the mouths and bellies of the people who need it. The United Nations has recognized that the right to food and water is a basic human right, and its member nations are slowly taking action.

In November Slovenia made the right to clean drinking water a constitutional right and Scotland’s Independent Working Group on Food Poverty recommended that its government make the right to food a matter of law. Such legislation will not end food insecurity or water scarcity. It would, however, mandate that the governments of these countries ensure that everyone has access to adequate and affordable food and water. Earlier this year, France passed a law banning supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, requiring them to donate that food to charities and food banks. Italy did the same. It also created tax incentives for businesses based on the amount of food donated and passed legislation to permit food slightly past its sell-by date to be donated without risk to the donor.

Non-government organizations also try to make a difference. In its first year of existence, a single company in the San Francisco Bay area rescued 350 tons of produce that had been rejected for sale in grocery stores solely for cosmetic reasons. The company donated the produce to homeless shelters and food banks and sold what it could to individual consumers.

To help address the hunger issue locally, the Junior League of Little Rock started a nonprofit organization called Potluck. Potluck collects food waste from hundreds of area food donors such as hospitals, food distributors, event centers, grocery stores, restaurants, and hotels. It redistributes its collections to food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. It serves several Arkansas communities, and with more help could serve more.

History’s Lessons

None of us has to waste as much food as we do. When my grandmother died more than 15 years ago, I rescued several tattered, fragile books from the shelf in her kitchen. Two of these hand-written books of recipes were over 100 years old and had belonged to her own mother and grandmother. These women who lived in Scott, Arkansas more than a century ago did not waste anything that could be eaten. They had recipes that specifically called for sour milk, bruised plums, and leftovers.

If we are foolish enough to believe that our society’s current careless attitude toward our excess food production cannot be a serious problem, let us remember that a drought between 1931-1941 desiccated the mid-section of the U.S. In the 1930s more than three and a half million people abandoned farms in the Plains states. Following Route 66, many of them ended up in California’s Central Valley. Their descendants still produce half of our domestically-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

The ghosts of Joad family, the Okie protagonists of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, are watching us. After five years of desperate drought in Oklahoma, they moved to California’s Central Valley. California’s Central Valley, which has been in a state of desperate drought for five years.

Agri-business, commercial consumers, governments, and ordinary people must work together to increase the efficiency of our food supply system. Ugly food is wasted, but the impact of current levels of food waste is even uglier.