Hop on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook, and you’ll likely see a picture of someone’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. The photographer behind the camera likely put thought into the photo, crafting an idyllic scene featuring a meal for the human eye. As a culture, we’re obsessed with food and perfection, and our social media feeds speak to this like nothing else. Whether we’re seeking the latest restaurant with the most delicious X (biscuits, pasta, pho, paleo menu—you name it!) or attempting to capture a photo of our dinner to make it look flawless, we center our experience of the food on ourselves, primarily considering the image we project through our food and dining experience.
Yet, we fail to recognize the complex processes that bring the food to our table, and we fail to question the various systems we participate in through our consumption. While we might have a surface interest in terms like cage-free or discussing the latest diet—ahem, I mean lifestyle choice—such as paleo or ketogenic menus, our food choices often reflect the trending topics in food and science.
Amidst the current fiery debates about what diet is best for our bodies and our planet, there is one issue that remains relatively uncharged and timeless in the ever-evolving food landscape: food waste. Food waste simply refers to food that we could eat, but we don’t because our abundance does not demand it of us.The tragedy of food waste is deeper than statistics about greenhouse gas emissions and money wasted. The story of most food waste is poor stewardship.
For many of us, food waste is a problem unique to our time. Our grandparents and the generations before them were finely tuned to the agrarian seasons and lacked the food security that has arisen (for the good or the bad) from modern technologies. Food was never wasted, out of necessity.
Food waste as a global food issue has come to public attention in recent years. A report from 2013 released staggering figures, stating that 50 percent of food is wasted. Articles have populated the internet documenting the various aspects of the problem, noting how big corporations are addressing this issue to the need for supply chains to take this issue seriously to the financial costs of food waste for the restaurant industry. And considering approximately one in nine people lack sufficient food to lead an flourishing lifestyle, discussions about food waste are needed to understand power dynamics at play in the global food system. Last year, the late Anthony Bourdain produced the helpful documentary Wasted! to illustrate the global scope of the problem and move the issue into mainstream attention.
The issue of food waste is a tragedy worthy of our attention and action because of humanity’s call to tend the earth, be fruitful, and care for neighbors in need. Moreover, the issue of food waste provides an opportunity to celebrate the goodness of amidst imperfection.
The Tragedy of Food Waste
In my home, the tragedy of food waste is first felt in our grocery budget. Internally, I grimace as I discover moldy peaches, meat past its prime, and leftovers shoved to the back of the fridge. As I discard those items in my garbage can, dollar signs dance in my eyes, and I wonder what else I could have done with the money I’m throwing away.
The pain of seeing money wasted in our monthly budget is merely a flashing pointer to the significant issues undergirding food waste outside our kitchens. The waste of each food item thrown away isn’t simply the amount I paid at the grocery store.
The food represents labor and natural resources that were simply discarded to the trash. Yearly, food waste requires a volume of water that is equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River. Wasted food also adds 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere.
According to the USDA, food waste in the United States is estimated between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply. It is the single largest component going into municipal landfills and then quickly generates methane, helping to make landfills the third-largest source of methane in the United States.
The tragedy of food waste is deeper than statistics about greenhouse gas emissions and money wasted. The story of most food waste is poor stewardship. The creation mandate of Genesis 1 calls humanity to steward and exercise dominion over the earth, which includes wisely using natural resources for the flourishing of our neighbors and our world.
Food waste ultimately takes valuable resources—such as land, water, and human labor—that are used in the food chain and discards them. These inputs could have been beneficial for our society. How could we have used the land that grew the wasted food? What other creative, worthwhile work could the woman have done who processed my now-expired canned tomatoes?
Because of the curse of Genesis 3, we will never have a waste-free food system. Despite our best efforts, faulty memories will cause us to forget last night’s leftovers, broken down semi-trucks full of meat will result in spoiled goods, and pests will burrow in our pantry canisters filled with rice and flour.
However, the scale of food waste observed does not have to be the de facto cost of consuming food in our 21st-century world. USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates 31 percent of food loss is at the retail and consumer levels, which means consumers can play a role in minimizing waste in their home kitchens, at their grocery stores, and in their communities.
Most articles lamenting the tragedy of food waste conclude with a list of practices to try at home. Learn the difference between a “Best By” and “Use By” date. Perfect the art of the “sniff test” to check your meat and dairy products. Buy ugly produce and dinged up cans at the grocery.
While practical tips are helpful, rewriting the story of food waste for the average consumer must go beyond to-do lists. Our imaginations must be captivated by a vision of how wonderful our world might be if our resources were stewarded and food consumed with excellence, ingenuity, and love. We must rethink how we eat, not just the problem arising from poor consumption habits.
And this is why Anthony Bourdain was a brilliant choice for creating a documentary on food waste. A hallmark of Anthony Bourdain’s career was asking thoughtful and/or provocative questions while celebrating food created and consumed with excellence.
“Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, moribund,” he wrote in Medium Raw.
As Bourdain ventured into streets and homes around the world to learn the customs and history of home cooks and to savor their creations in his show Parts Unknown, his vision for food offered a guide for how we can approach consumption. If we’re to rewrite the story of food waste, we must mirror Bourdain’s attitude and learn from our neighbors and our past. We must innovate with what we have while keeping an eye on the future and delighting in the food that currently fills our pantries and fridges.
One recent movement that highlights this attitude and showcases opportunities to minimize waste is Appalachian cooking. In 2016, the Washington Post reported on a renaissance of Appalachian cuisine and highlighted how the poverty of the residents often spurred ingenuity to prevent food waste and create delicious food. They shared the story of chef Denny Trantham who followed his grandmother’s recipe for blackberry cobbler using leftover biscuit dough and jam that had not properly set.
Elaine Irwin Meyer, president of the Museum of Appalachia, explains that hogs were abundant in the region and the residents used the whole hog upon butchering, even saving the fat for seasoning and cooking.
“It has been said that the only part of the hog that was not used was the squeal!” she notes.
Preventing food waste doesn’t mean eating the same pan of lasagna for weeks on end or choking down wilted produce past its prime. But, preventing food waste does ask to rethink our contemporary approach food (as often embodied in social media posts and modern recipe books) which demands we create meals that are only made with the best of the best and nothing less and that rise to a level of perfection attained only through throwing out (or not utilizing) the humble and imperfect.
Preventing food waste calls us to imagine a world where our food is seen as good and utilized creatively for the sake of bringing into existence delicious food while stewarding our resources with wholehearted thankfulness and joyful imagination.
As food writer and Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon explains: “Nothing is more likely to become garbage than orange rind; but for as long as anyone looks at it in delight, it stands a million triumphant miles from the trash heap.”
With the questions about food and what’s the best way to eat, we can begin with the simple task of reducing waste through our own practices and mindsets. What if we handled food with the curiosity of Bourdain, the resourcefulness embodied by our grandmothers and the delight of Capon?
For the good or the bad, many of us live in a land of abundance which comes with a degree of privilege and power. A variety of inexpensive foods are readily available for our purchase, and we often have the financial means to compensate for our waste with another trip to the grocery store. That privilege offers us an opportunity to go against popular culture and steward our resources counter to the cultural narrative of getting what we want, when we want because we have the resources to afford it without batting an eye to how it impacts our environment and our neighbors.
When we shop at the grocery store and cook dinner for ourselves, our friends and families, we can act of agents of change to reduce food waste. We begin not with selectively using foods past their due date or seeing how many dinners we can make with a roasted chicken. We start this battle against food waste by looking at our food—the wilted, the leftover, the unappetizing—with delight and curiosity, wondering what could be. That delight is what will keep food from our garbage cans, and instead fill our tables with bounty and joy.