Friday, November 18, 2011

Guest Entry: Food Waste on Thanksgiving

I recently read a captivating article that is timely for celebrating Thanksgiving with a spirit of good stewardship.  Thank you, guest writer!
Despite being pushed to the back of the shelf, there it is – that six-day-old eggplant parmesan – every time I open the refrigerator. It was delicious last Friday, a new recipe made with eggplant fresh from the farm. I know I need to eat it soon before it spoils and must be thrown out, wasted, like one quarter to one half of all food in America.1

My eyes were opened to the enormous waste of food in a NC sweet potato field on a crisp, autumn morning at the Society of St. Andrew’s 19th annual “Yam Jam.” In four hours, more than 800 volunteers gleaned 84,010 pounds of sweet potatoes for regional food pantries. I was shocked at the volume of perfectly edible food that would otherwise have been left to rot and be plowed back under by the farmer. “And this is only one field!” I kept saying over and over to anyone who would listen. How much food is really being wasted in this country, I wondered? What is being done about it? And, how can I help? Though I am no food waste expert, I continue this journey, seeking to become a more informed, engaged and faithful steward.
Food loss and waste occurs all along the supply chain: harvesting, processing, storage, retail distribution, food service, and households. Here are some revealing statistics:
• The US wastes 96 billion pounds of food each year. It costs $1 billion to dispose of this waste.2

• An average grocery store disposes on average 700-800 pounds of food per day. With more than 35,000 stores in this country, total daily grocery store waste is 30 million pounds.3

• Americans throw away 15%–25% of food brought into our homes. Assuming a family of four is shopping on the USDA low-cost plan, spending $175 a week on groceries, they squander $1,365 to $2,275 a year. 4

• Food waste makes up 14% of solid waste entering landfills, where, in decomposition, it produces methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. 5
Given what I’ve learned, I cannot turn a blind eye to food waste. I see it everywhere, as if I were seeking it out.

While visiting friends in Maine recently we stopped at the local bakery to pick up leftover bread for their pigs. This wasn’t just any bread. We retrieved about 60 loaves of sweet and savory artisan bread that sells for $7.00 a loaf. The bakery only sells bread that is baked fresh that day and throws out what is left when the store closes each evening. I was appalled! Though the bread didn’t feed hungry people, at least we kept it from the landfill and made the pigs happy. (The French toast and grilled cheese sandwiches we humans ate the next day made us happy, too.)

DC Central Kitchen, a Washington DC based organization that turns leftover food into healthy meals, recycles 3,000 pounds of food per day. I see a small portion of this food when I volunteer each week. The food arrives from grocery stores, farms, restaurants, wholesalers, and even Nationals ballpark; much of it is local and organic. Standing at my cutting board, I remove brown, wilted leaves from lettuce; cut blemishes from tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onions; then chop, slice and dice them into appropriate sizes. This produce, rescued from certain demise, will be assembled into fifty to eighty 25- serving pans by the end of my three-hour shift. Combined with hot food being prepared in another part of the kitchen, DCCK will distribute 4,500 – 5,000 meals later today (and everyday) to 88 partner agencies serving at-risk individuals. This is food recovery at its best!

Fortunately, there is hope. More people are connecting the dots between hunger, economics, creation care, and food waste. Individuals are choosing to reduce household food waste; groups are recovering food from the waste stream; retailers, educated on Good Samaritan Act (1996), are more willing to donate food; companies are being held accountable to reducing food waste by stricter regulations that carry financial incentives or penalties; and businesses are sending their food waste to anaerobic digesters to convert into energy.

What can we do to reduce food waste?

* Purchase less food.
* Use up leftovers.
* De-clutter our refrigerator so we can see more easily what is in it.
* Eat down what is in our refrigerator and cabinets before purchasing more.
* Plan our meals; make a grocery list; and stick to it.
* Beware of bulk and buy- one-get-one free purchases that may go bad before we can use it up.
* Educate ourselves on “sell-by” and “use-by” date labels.
* Compost.
* Give our food scraps to farmers for their animals.
* Link up with our neighborhood bakery to retrieve unsellable leftovers and take them to the local shelter for homeless families on a regular basis.
* Encourage our grocery stores to donate edible food to food recovery groups.
* Join the Eat Trash campaign, asking Trader Joe’s to initiate a Zero Waste corporate-wide policy.
* Tell our produce managers that we are willing to purchase fruits and vegetables that may not be cosmetically perfect or uniform in size and shape, as we know they are still nutritious and tasty—and then do it.
* Encourage restaurants to reduce portion sizes.
* Take leftovers home.
* Ask every coffee shop, café, and restaurant we frequent what they do with unused food and encourage them to donate it.
* Patronize grocery stores and restaurants who donate to food recovery groups. (There’s even a new app that identifies restaurants in NYC that donate!)
* Volunteer with food recovery organizations like Interfaith Food Shuttle (NC), City Harvest (NY), or DC Central Kitchen. * Glean with an organization like Society of St. Andrew or Senior Gleaners (CA).
* Educate our CSA farm and farmers at the Farmer’s Market about gleaning and ask if we can connect them with a gleaning organization.
* Start a campaign to provide curbside composting for food waste.

Reducing food waste can help feed hungry people, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and save money. We all eat, so we all can make a difference. As I John 3:18 reminds us, we love “not in our word or speech, but in truth and action.”

I’ll be having that eggplant parmesan for dinner.

Leah McCullough, a United Church of Christ minister from North Carolina, is spending a sabbatical year in the Washington DC area. While there she is listening more deeply and exploring a potentially new call to “Feed my sheep,” perhaps by recovering some of the staggering amounts of food waste in this country. She may be contacted at

1 Jonathan Bloom, in American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), (Cambridge, Mass: Da Capo Press, 2010), xi.

2 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Waste Not, Want Not: A Guide for Feeding the Hungry and Reducing Solid Waste Through Food Recovery,” last updates on November 1, 2011,

3 Bloom, 150.

4 Bloom, 186-187.

5 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Basic Information about Food Waste,” last updated on November 1, 2011,

1 comment:

  1. Great post! Thanks Leah, and V. I will definitely be more conservation aware, especially with the big food holidays upon us. I wonder how AK is dealing with food conservation. Hey, we have farming during the less cold parts of the year. Just not right now, because it's -2 degrees during the daylight hours...

    Yaar N