Figuring out why so much of our food ends up tossed in the trash
There are times when my kids seem to be the incarnation of America’s food waste problem. Lunchboxes come home with untouched fruit because it “had a dark spot.” Second helpings of dinner are abandoned on plates after only one or two bites. Vegetables are rejected on sight. It’s a frustrating dynamic, but interesting in how well it matches what many of us do all the time, even if we’re not always willing to admit it to ourselves. Still, with 80 billion pounds of food being tossed out each year, it seems worth taking another look at what we’re dumping in the trash.
Food that’s old or unattractive
One weird twist about my kids’ discarded food is that, unlike 87 percent of us who think they don’t throw out too much, my kids don’t seem to really notice what food goes in the trash. It’s possible that they’re more concerned that they’re not being asked to eat that last veggie, and so the trashcan is their friend in mealtime negotiations. Most adults don’t seem to be throwing out uneaten portions of food they just don’t like, and are instead motivated by concerns about freshness, expiration dates, and possible contamination. Researchers suspect that not all of these concerns are well informed, as things like expiration dates are often misunderstood to be more definitive and accurate than they actually are, meaning many edible items are being tossed out when they shouldn’t be.
Emptying out our refrigerators and pitching our leftovers is really only part of the problem. Huge amounts of food, particularly produce, is rejected before my kids even have a chance to turn their noses up at it. Because people want visually appealing produce, any apple or orange with a blemish is unlikely to sell. In many cases, grocery stores cut consumers out of the equation, rejecting unsightly produce as it’s delivered, even if it means sending a truckload of food back to the farmer. This has pushed farmers to worry about appearances before even stocking their trucks, ploughing veggies into the soil, feeding imperfect watermelons to cows, or dumping precut orange wedges into the landfill.
Small solutions for squishy snacks
Throwing out edible food is provoking a surprising variety of responses. Some people are suspicious grocery stores enjoy extra profits from people rebuying the food they threw out the week before on a regular basis. Others are looking to reclaim and redistribute “ugly” food, either for mainstream consumers or to help feed people who otherwise lack the resources to get any form of produce. Efforts are being made to raise permanently prettier food, such as apples that don’t brown when you cut them up, or baby carrots that remove blemishes consumers would rather not see. In your own kitchen, you can put some of that squishier produce to work in recipes designed for foods slightly past their prime.
When is fruit too far gone?
To be fair, there are times where food shouldn’t be eaten. Unlike the last few bites of my son’s macaroni, it doesn’t make sense for anyone to eat food that is legitimately contaminated. To better find the line between a harmlessly bruised apple and one carrying pathogens, look at the skin around the brown patch. If it’s intact, you’re probably fine. If there’s a break in the skin, and especially if fluid seems to be seeping out, you may have more of a problem. Stems also act as entry points for pathogens, so give them a check too. While there’s a lot of emphasis on looks in all this, smell your food- evolution has made your nose pretty adept at noting when a food smells wrong. Finally, consider the structure of the produce. Bacteria and molds will spread faster through something soft like bananas, but a bell pepper may be salvageable if you cut off the damaged area.
Food-borne illness isn’t something to needlessly risk, so don’t try to be a hero about truly inedible food. Just keep track of what you’re throwing out, and maybe buy better portions to fit your diet so things have less time to rot in the first place.
Source: Food for Thought: Americans Just Can't Stop Throwing Out Food by Sara G. Miller, Live Science