March is National Nutrition Month and the theme this year is “Go Further with Food.” There is a double meaning here since the message hopes to address better food choices for better nutrition and to call attention to our massive amount of food that is wasted.
Food waste in the U.S. has reached staggering proportions. It is estimated that 60 million tons of food (or 50 percent of all produce and worth about $160 billion) is discarded every year.
Most of this wasted food ends up in landfills where it represents the largest amount of discarded material. An American family of four throws away over $1,500 of produce annually. Worldwide, the waste is also about a third of all food, sometimes for different reasons such as harvesting and transport issues, but still at a cost of $3 trillion per year.
Why have we become such a wasteful society? There are various reasons, but one factor is the low-cost of food in the U.S. as compared with other countries, some of which is related to generous agricultural subsidies. There is also consumer demand, which favors perfect-looking produce and rejects anything that might be bruised, wilted or discolored, regardless of how the item will be prepared. Supermarkets recognize this consumer demand for perfection and pre-emptively throwaway anything that looks deformed or blemished in any way.
Farmers also pre-emptively eliminate fruits and vegetables that lack consumer appeal in response to unrelenting consumer demands for the perfect looking product. Our Facebook photo culture aggravates the problem by compelling retailers and restaurants to make picture perfect dishes or risk the ire of hyper-sensitive consumers and foodies.
A move toward acceptance of local crops, diversity of products, and a shift in aesthetics can all help reduce waste. On a personal level, as a consumer, we can take a few useful steps:
- Take an inventory of food in your home before going to buy more,
- Buy only limited quantities of food that correspond to what can be eating or frozen for a few days only,
- Prepare and serve reasonable portions that contain all food groups, but not in excessive quantities,
- Buy limited quantities (not the “economy” pack) rather than being obliged to discard what you cannot reasonably consume,
- Exercise adequately to burn off calories rather than accumulate them as fat,
- Recycle through composting,
- Donate unwanted food to food pantries and
- Learn about the meaning of food labeling (i.e. “Use by,” “best by” and “sell by”).
In Europe, the refrigerators are tiny by American standards. European housewives will often shop daily, not weekly, at a market or grocery store within walking distance. Produce in a market is usually locally grown and may not be picture perfect. Prices at such markets, however, are usually lower than in a supermarket and thus a sound consumer choice, not a privilege of the wealthy. France and Germany both require supermarkets to compost or donate unsold or expiring food.
Louisiana prides itself on its rich and varied food culture. It does not have to wasteful or unhealthy since an abundance of local products remains available.
Eat a healthy breakfast and remain active throughout the day. Celebrate National Nutrition Month by eating right, exercising and reducing waste following the instructions above. If you have specific issues and concerns, do not hesitate to consult a nutritionist who will be happy to explain your food choices and their consequences. Bon appetit!
David J. Holcombe, MD, MSA