What’s the deal with food waste?

By: Portia Bharath, Columnist

Do you ever wonder what happens to the unsold produce at the supermarket, or all the extra Starbucks pastries still behind the glass at closing time? How much food is left uneaten? In the first article of this two-part series, we are discussing food waste.

Let’s start off with some rather bleak statistics: Americans toss out an average of 150,000 tons of food per day – that is equal to about a pound per person (curiously enough, people who consume a diet richer in fruits and vegetables tend to waste more food). Environmentally speaking alone, food waste is a major issue. It is the largest source of material entering landfills, where there is limited oxygen throughout the heaps. When food decomposes without oxygen, it will produce methane – a greenhouse gas roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. If all the wasted food were grown on one farm, it would occupy 30 million acres of land and use 4.2 trillion gallons of freshwater. Seeing as how land and freshwater are resources high in demand, it’s safe to say that misusing them shows a huge lack in efficiency. With nearly 50 million American families living with food insecurity, production and sale efficiency must increase if the gap is to be closed.

But not all food waste occurs at the individual household level. A lot of the produce grown never even makes it to the supermarket – it is left in the fields to rot or fed to cattle. Why? Because people don’t like ugly fruit. Workers in the production service (like farmers and packers) realized that produce with even minor blemishes or deformities – that don’t affect quality – consistently get overlooked in the market. There’s no point in wasting time and labor to package and transport those goods, so they are simply counted as a loss. One potato farmer in California estimates that 25 percent or more of his crop could be deemed imperfect and left behind. Americans’ irrational need for aesthetic perfection is causing a painful amount of unnecessary waste.

What does food waste look like on college campuses? A study claims that college students throw away an average of 142 pounds of food a year. Sometimes, students take more food than they can actually eat and end up discarding the excess. Meal plans are a convenient way for the university to estimate how much food to prepare, but sometimes a particular plan incorporates more meals than a student is comfortable consuming. This causes there to be an overabundance of food prepared in the dining halls. When these factors are multiplied by the thousands of students attending a university, the impact can be alarming. But we can feel confident that college campuses are coming up with solutions to some of these problems. In the second part of this series, we will learn what steps Towson University is taking to reduce the amount of food waste produced.   


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