The Food Waste Problem Has an Easily Avoidable Cause: Everyone’s Too Picky

Low prices, overabundance, and lack of practical cooking education give Americans the illusion that food is disposable.
Misshapen tomatoes. (Getty Images/Zen Shui)
Jun 19, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

The trendiest topic in food isn’t tacos or bone broth or nitro cold brew. It’s the flip side of our abundant appetite for good food: the remains of the plate. It’s food waste.

In the past week alone, the headlines wouldn’t quit. Former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch opened nonprofit grocery store Daily Table in Boston, its shelves stocked with “rescued” surplus and unsold food donated by wholesalers and for-profit grocery stores and otherwise destined for Dumpsters owing to nearing sell-by dates. On the other side of the country, grocery chain Raley’s, in partnership with Imperfect Produce, will pilot selling “ugly” fruits and vegetables in 10 Northern California stores in mid-July, NPR reported. (We’re a bit late to the party; French supermarket Intermarche held a stunning campaign last summer in homage to “the failed lemon” and “the grotesque apple.”)

It’s all rather good news, except when you look at the underlying reasons why up to 40 percent of our food gets fed straight to the trash can. A recent study from Johns Hopkins University parses it down to one easily avoidable factor: We’re picky.

RELATED: Understanding the Global Problem of Food Waste

One of the most common reasons respondents gave for throwing away food was that they want to eat only the freshest of the fresh. Worst of all, no one thinks our garbage stinks. In a press release about her research, Roni Neff, who led the study, pointed out that “Americans perceive themselves of wasting very little food, but in reality, we are wasting substantial quantities.”

“We live in an era of abundance and cheap food,” Cinda Chavich, author of The Waste Not Want Not Cookbook, wrote in an email. “Consumers need to treat food as a valuable commodity instead of something that’s cheap and disposable.”

The solution is dead easy—and it’s one that cuts down on cash and carbon emissions alike: “Buy what you need, and plan to eat what you buy,” advised Chavich.

It’s not rocket science, but it is meaningful: Because roughly half of food waste comes from our kitchens, shopping and cooking habits can make a big dent. In general, our fussiness for freshness is mostly misplaced; studies show food expiration dates are largely meaningless.

But in part the problem is we don’t know how to cook, not really. A recipe catches our eye on Pinterest; we make a list; we shop for ingredients. Chavich suggests instead that we “cook backwards.” That means putting to use what’s in abundance in the market and the vegetables already in the crisper in “mother” recipes: soup, frittata, fried rice, risotto, flatbread, pasta. Call it cooking from the hip. Also call it making your life a lot easier.

“This kind of local seasonal cooking is trendy now, but it’s really just basic, home-style farm or peasant cooking, the kind of food people have been cooking for centuries (and the way many people around the world still cook),” Chavich wrote.

So, Why Should You Care? According to a recent report by UNEP and the World Resources Institute (WRI), about one-third of all food produced worldwide, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. When this figure is converted to calories, this means that about 1 in 4 calories intended for consumption is never actually eaten. Not only does all this lost food fill up landfills, but it also creates an artificial demand for more agricultural output, which hikes up the need for quick production methods like environmentally destructive monoculture farming and genetically modified, pesticide-resistant crops.

The "waste not, want not" mentality was originally about frugality, and we waste food in part because of the illusion that we can.

“It’s so cheap to buy food [that] we just look at it as a given, that it will always be there—‘I can go buy more tomorrow,’ ” Dan Nickey, associate director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, told NPR.

This kind of thinking is misguided, Chavich explained. “It’s a false economy to buy something that’s cheaper and end up throwing half of it away.”

“The industrial model gives us cheap food, but there are many other costs that we need to factor in when we choose food (how healthy it is for our bodies, the local farmers and the local economy, the environment). We now spend about 7 to 9 percent of our disposable income on food. In France it’s 14 percent, developing countries 30 percent. I think if we learned to value our food and our food producers more, we would all win,” she continued.

It would add stability to the global problem of food insecurity. The FAO estimates that global food production must increase 60 percent by 2050 to meet the demands of the ballooning world population. Cut the $2.6 trillion issue of global food waste in half by 2050, and we make up one-quarter of the gap.

Chavich is optimistic. “I think we can all make a difference, one meal at a time.”

There was never a better reason to cook dinner.