No Time to Waste - The Years Project

No Time to Waste

By Zoe Lieberman

In a culture where we avoid wasting money, time and energy like the plague, why is it that we can’t seem to translate this frugality when we choose to toss our food?

More than 80 billion pounds of food is wasted each year in the U.S., making us the largest solid waste producer per capita in the world. (Yay! America #1, baby!) If that statistic doesn’t pique your concern, this colossal loss equated to $408 billion in 2019.

This is a huge problem; not only is food waste uneconomical, it is degrading to our planet. We’re wasting about 40% of all food produced in the U.S.. When this food rots in the landfills, it emits colossal amounts of methane — a greenhouse gas that does an even better job at warming the planet than CO2.

The degree to which America squanders food is devastating, but why do we waste so much? I would argue it’s because we’ve become out of touch with the root and the fate of our food.

As our agricultural system has become more consolidated, we’ve tallied up more and more stops in our food’s journey from farm to table. At the same time, our trash systems have become much better at sequestering our waste out-of-sight and out-of-mind in landfills. We have become physically, temporally and spiritually disconnected from the lifecycle of our food. And in turn, it has become easy for us to allow nutrition, money, and resources to slip through the cracks of our food system and into steaming garbage heaps.

HOW DID WE END UP SO DETACHED?

In a time where resources were more limited, family and community farms dominated the economy. In turn, people HAD to be up close and personal with their food from [the true] farm to table. But in the wake of the industrial revolution, the American focus became convenience.

Why wait for strawberry season when we could have them shipped from Mexico? Why bake bread at home when you can purchase a pristine, pre-sliced loaf (wrapped in plastic, of course)? And forget about the milkman – why wait for a weekly delivery when you can buy a gallon at your leisure? Grocery stores have become cornucopias where one aisle of packaged products flows into the next, and the shelves stay stocked with glimmering produce.

All of a sudden, time was no longer an object. We had quality and variety at the tip of our fingers, and we didn’t have to lift a pinky.

Unfortunately, this revolution has led us to distill the value of nutrition to a price and consequently lose sight of the time and care required to feed us.

This paradigm came to be with the intention of providing comfort and ease — which it certainly does— but the repercussions are dire. So, how can we as everyday eaters, make meaningful shifts in our ideologies around food and rebuild a sustainable food system?

Well first, let’s break down exactly when, where and how the food is being lost.

WHERE IS THE WASTE?

For one, a recent study suggests that ⅓ of all edible food produced in the US is left unharvested in the fields.

A farmer’s success is dependent on factors often out of their control like market prices, weather, and the cost of labor. When demand for product falls unexpectedly or the market price is insufficient to cover the price of labor and transportation, farmers are forced to leave behind a share of their crops in the field. So when COVID-19 forced the closure of restaurants, hotels and school lunchrooms, farmers across America had to watch their season’s work slip through their fingers.

And if this isn’t tragic enough, some 40 million Americans are facing food insecurity — something is just not adding up. Some farmers have the capacity to send some of their excess food to food banks, but it’s a costly feat and most small farms cannot afford the labor and transport to do so. Under pressure from farmers, some states have implemented tax incentives to donate leftover food to the people who need it most.

Another factor that contributes to waste on the farm is aesthetic selectivity. The USDA provides the cosmetic rubric for grading produce, but this has resulted in unnecessary selectivity by growers and suppliers in hopes of selling their products at the highest price. Oddly enough, looks count for more than flavor when it comes to fruits and veggies, and the major marketplaces are strict: any uneven pigmentation, naturally-occurring blemishes, or minor bruising are no-no’s, and produce that’s even slightly out of the size or shape range is usually deemed unworthy for sale. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever had a garden, gone fruit picking, or been to a farmers market, you know that oftentimes it’s the funky looking tomato that tastes the best.

Ok, so it looks like we have the market and the government to blame for these sources of waste before it even reaches our plates- but hold on, don’t lose hope just yet! As consumers, we hold the power.

WHAT WE CAN DO

Find out who your farmers are.

Yes, it’s easy to forget to thank the real, living people who are dedicating their lives to feeding the world. And while you might not be able to shake the hands of the farmers, you can still become familiar with their work. Look into the companies you are supporting—familiarize yourself with their environmental initiatives, farmer protection policies, and agricultural practices. Knowledge is incentive. By staying informed, you will know how to make the choices that support farmers who are working towards a more sustainable future.

Go shopping for “seconds”

Companies like Full Harvest, Imperfect Produce, Hungry Harvest and Misfit Markets are creating a new marketplace for rescued food. They are helping farmers to make sure their hard work pays off by saving any surplus or quirky looking produce that would’ve been left to rot in the fields. These groups are backing up farmers, normalizing the au natural look, and providing fresh, whole produce at a reduced price.

Get familiar with your food.

The #1 thing you can do to reshape your own relationship with food is to get cozy with crops. In a study examining the influence of aesthetic prototypes, the researchers found that 1) that unrealistic aesthetic standards have caused people to be averse to misshapen produce and 2) that the more experience you have with growing produce, the more likely you are to embrace misshapen produce. The picture-perfect produce we see in the grocery stores is warping our perception of what natural food ought to look like. In order to combat this attack on our psyche, we need to get down and dirty with our food. I’m not saying everyone has to live off the land (as cool as that would be!) but there are a bunch of different ways we can reignite our appreciation for food.

Need a fun family or date activity? Go fruit picking or visit a farm. Got a backyard? Make a compost pile and watch your waste turn back into the earth. Discover waste-conscious recipes that incorporate stems, rinds, skins and bones. Skip the pre-cut herbs and get a potted plant- you’ll never have to worry about them wilting and you’ll even end up saving money.

Just say thanks.

If nothing else, say ‘thank you.’ Take a moment just to be grateful for the food in front of you and to consider its journey.

By engaging with these solutions, it will help us to avoid the sneaky ways in which we contribute to the food waste crisis. This isn’t a new year’s resolution. It’s not about going cold turkey 100% zero-waste. This is about activating individual consciousness in order to attain a cultural reset.

LOOKING TO THE INDIGENOUS WAY

And what better way to relearn how to honor our food than looking to the people who never forgot how to. In her novel ‘Braiding Sweetgrass,’ ecologist, professor and indigenous author Robin Wall Kimmerer shares the Potawatomi way of procuring food:

“The guidelines for the Honorable Harvest are not written down, or even consistently spoken of as a whole – they are reinforced in small acts of daily life. But if you were to list them, they might look something like this:

…Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given…
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Share.
Give thanks for what you have been given.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer

These indigenous instructions are intuitive. Food is truly a gift, and should be treated as such. We seem to have forgotten this native wisdom, but there is time to remember. We can take control of the food waste crisis as long as we relearn the meanings of respect and reciprocity. I imagine a future in which we emulate the Honorable Harvest, and I have hope.