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Understanding the Issue of Food Waste

The world wastes roughly $1 trillion of food each year, which could have been enough to sustain 2 billion people—twice the number of malnourished people worldwide. Reading the statistics about food waste can be heartbreaking, and even more so that many people are still unaware of the issue.

Just like the harrowing effects of plastic in the ocean, we should focus on reducing the amount of food waste. First, it means understanding food waste, its consequences, and what we can do to help solve the problem.

Food Loss vs. Food Waste

Both food loss and food waste refer to any food for human consumption that leaves the human food chain, including those becoming animal feed or fuel for bio-energy. Both mean food that goes to waste, but how is food loss different from food waste?

Food loss makes up the more significant proportion and includes any edible food that loses its value before reaching its final consumption stage. We can consider them all food loss from leftover crops in the fields and ingredients that go bad during transportation to uneaten foods at home.

Meanwhile, the foods that become the final product but remain uneaten are food waste — especially if they are good quality and safe for consumption. Usually, food waste happens because we throw them away or leave them to spoil.

Food Waste in Everyday Situations

Food loss typically occurs in the production and distribution stage, including on farms, fishing boats, and packing houses. Meanwhile, food waste takes place much closer to retail businesses, restaurants and supermarkets, and at home. Food waste is where the general population can make a more significant difference.

In 2019, retail stores across the US alone 43 billion pounds of food. When you consider that 12.3% of households in the country were food insecure in 2016, the number is more than distressing. The highest amount of food waste comes from perishables like baked goods, produce, and meat. While it causes significant financial loss for supermarkets, many still believe that wasteful practices are good business moves. For instance, overstocking food, throwing away aesthetically “imperfect” (but perfectly edible) produce, oversized packaging, and strictly abiding to “sell by” dates.

Restaurants and institutions contribute their share of food waste, too, from schools and hotels to hospitals! Many restaurants sell portions that are simply too big for most customers to finish. Extensive menu choices also cause many wasted ingredients even before they reach the diner’s table—for example, over-preparation of food by kitchen staff and improper storage of components. Additionally, buffets are legally unable to reuse or donate uneaten food because of health code restrictions.

It can be easy to paint the big-name institutions as the devil here, but we haven’t started on the role of households, which are the most significant contributor to food waste. American families annually waste around 76 billion pounds of food.

The most common cause for food waste at home is food spoilage, which means the food spoils before we can eat them. Up next is over-preparing, where too many people like to serve more food than they know they can finish. Instead of reheating or reusing the leftovers for future meals, many simply throw them away. The same thing goes for overbuying, especially when sales and promotions lead to impulse shopping.

Other than that, most people throw away food because they have passed the “use by” dates. The truth is you can still eat them safely because “use by” dates simply refer to the peak quality for selling. Indeed, learning how to tell if fruits, vegetables, and meat are still usable based on your intuition can go a long way.

What Can You Do?

We know now that food waste can quickly reduce if only more people are aware of it and willing to take the right actions. So, what can we do?

The most obvious thing is to shop smart and plan well. Instead of bulk buying and storing more food than you can eat, it’s okay to visit the grocery store more frequently. It also helps keep all your fresh produce and meat correctly, and to freeze some of them can help extend their shelf life. Make an effort to use up all your foods before they spoil or expire. Plus, while you’re at it, why not learn how to compost too?

When it comes to shopping, don’t be a perfectionist and select only visually flawless foods. The “ugly” fruits and vegetables are just as edible and nutritious, and some supermarkets may even sell them at a discount. Furthermore, try always to save leftovers and learn to reuse them in fun recipes.

Once we have minimized food waste, we can start worrying about other issues, like recycling. Good luck!


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