Food waste is so often presented in moral terms. It’s bad, even a sin, to waste food. This is a terrible way to frame the issue. Waste versus non-waste is not bad versus good. It’s a decision about what good is most important to us.
Not so long ago in a matter of a couple of weeks, I threw out a jar of jam, 2 pounds tortillas, a chocolate cake, the remains of Chinese takeout, trimmings from a roast, 2 racks of lamb, half a bottle of cooking oil, half a bag of sugar, and half-consumed tins of cocoa, coffee and tea, as well as pounds of fruit peelings. Why?
I don’t eat moldy jam, cheese and bread, since experts tell us it’s dangerous.
I did in my youth. Mold was just scraped off. The family ate the jam, or cheese or bread underneath.
Even we, though would not have eaten the New Zealand lamb. The stench on opening made it clear that it it had sat defrosted but plastic-wrapped on the shelf for days (they did return my money).
- Job opportunities.
My husband and I regularly spend two to three months a year working away from home, usually overseas. You can’t give away, I’ve discovered, a box with partial bottles of oil, bags of sugar, and cans of tea, coffee and cocoa.
Students, migrant workers, and many others in a highly mobile society can’t pitch their temporary supplies either.
- Work requirements.
I needed a kilogram of tortillas for a demonstration at a conference. There’s no way my husband and I can eat these many tortillas. Into the trash.
- Experimentation and Taste.
I thought my husband would love the chocolate cake that looked so enticing in the bakery. Appearances were deceiving. Out it went.
Who hasn’t tried new ingredients or only to discover they didn’t like them?
- Respect for others.
In the past, and still in many countries in the world, leftover food was passed on to servants, the poor, and beggars.
Now we feel embarrassed to pass food we won’t eat to those poorer or less fortunate than us. Ideally they don’t have to suffer the humiliation of accepting it. A change for the better in my book.
(Yes, I know a common argument, perhaps the commonest argument, is that waste food should feed the poor but I do not think this, even when possible, is ideal. See the reference below).
- Care for animals.
Similarly, dogs and cats, pigs and chicken used to consume leftover food. Now, either you don’t have these useful animals (there go the roast trimmings) or they have their own cuisine.
- Not worth your time.
When food makes up 40, 50 or 80 or 90% of disposable income, then you won’t find much waste because any savings have to be savings from food.
When it makes up 10%, as it does for many in the US, then it’s not worth your time to worry over every little leftover. There goes the stale Chinese takeout.
- Health and Taste.
I believe it is good for my husband to eat fruit, but he’s picky about it, so from time to time I make orange juice.
I end up with three or four rinds for every glass of juice. I can make marmalade and candied peel, but there is a limit to the number of rinds I can use. (Contrast this with early twentieth century Sweden where an orange was a rare Christmas treat, used peel and all).
Not wasting food is good.
Safe, healthy, tasty food is good. The ability to choose food is good. The opportunity to work is good. Respecting others is good.
It would be wonderful if the “don’t waste” value never clashed with other values such as safety, health, taste, choice, respect, and financial sense.
Life’s not like that. Values clash all the time. Behaving well as an adult means making choices about which values are most important.
Eating well as an adult means making choices about what values are most important.
So enough of the spurious contrast between virtuous non-waste behavior and sinful waste. That simply induces guilt and anxiety. Guilt and anxiety make it difficult to eat well which get in the way of eating well.
Instead recognize that when adults “waste” food, it’s frequently neither careless nor sinful but because they reckon that safety, health, taste, choice, respect for others and/or financial sense are values that trump “non-waste.”
That’s why I’m a happy food waster. And you might want to be too.
Marc Bellemare and his colleagues have a paper out that suggests that perhaps the problem of food waste is over-hyped. They do a good job of pointing out the differing and often slippery definitions of waste that are employed, often, I have to suspect, for food activist ends.
Wikipedia has a pretty good and non-emotive article on food waste.
Here’s a link to a useful article by Martin Caraher and Sinéad Furey on the question Is it appropriate to use surplus food to feed people in hunger?