Column: Food waste has widespread consequences

I have written many times about food and produce the past two semesters. So much so that it may seem like I am obsessed about the topic, and maybe I am. But the only reason that I write so much about food is to bring attention to topics we may not think about because it is easy to overlook them. Food is vital to life and what happens with it, and around it, have deep and lasting effects on more than just your diet.

The other reason that I write about food is because I have first-hand experience with it. My first job was in a grocery store and while working there I discovered not only my interest in food, but topics that have stuck with me for a long time after I left. One thing I discovered is that we waste a lot of food.

I worked in stock at my local grocery store, and it was my job to take product from the delivery truck to the shelves. I also made sure that the milk and dairy sections were full and stocked. It was there that I usually began my shift. Before I walked behind the shelf into the walk-in fridge, I had to check all of the milk for the expiration date. This may seem like a normal thing to do, but I was not checking for milk that had gone bad. It was my store’s policy that any milk that was within five days of the expiration or sold by date on the carton had to be pulled from the shelf. No matter the size, no matter the type, they had to be pulled and then promptly thrown away. During my time I easily threw away hundreds of gallons of perfectly drinkable milk. One day a co-worker came to me, after I had been in the milk cooler most of the morning, and said that the main dairy lead was angry with me for not pulling expired milk. I was baffled, I had not seen anything that had gone out of date. So I went back to the dairy section and asked the dairy lead, who was pulling gallons off the shelf two at a time, what I had done wrong. He turned to me and said that he wasn’t upset, he was only taking this milk away because it was six days from the expiration date and he wanted to save himself some work tomorrow.

Milk wasn’t the only thing being wasted. Another policy that this store had was that if an egg in a carton was damaged in any way, the whole carton of eggs had to be thrown out. A completely broken egg makes sense because the yolk spills all over the container and other eggs, but this also applied to anything slightly broken or cracked. Anyone who knows anything about eggs knows how fragile they are. A typical restocking of the egg shelves could see me unload six boxes of eggs and bring back two boxes of ‘damaged’ eggs. Easily more than 90 percent of which were perfectly edible eggs.

Any canned or boxed good had to be brought back to damaged goods if it had any dent or scratch on the packaging. Nothing was wrong with the food inside, but because the package was not aesthetically pleasing, it could not be sold. There was not a discount area for slightly damaged products. There were not opportunities for donating edible food. Anything that was not pristine, and weeks removed from the expiration date, was scanned, counted and thrown directly into the garbage.

I’m not even counting the produce department, which was a separate section of the store. For them, disposing of produce was not a daily occurrence, but an hourly one. Produce that looked slightly different or oddly shaped was treated the same as food that had gone bad. Overflowing shelves, to make the section look appealing to customers, frequently had to be rotated to remove expiring product. Workers would come towards the baler, where we disposed of many cardboard boxes, and instead turn to the garbage shoot to throw in boxes full of ‘damages.'

This grocery store was not the biggest in the area and not unique in its industry. Many stores around the country have similar practices and routinely throw out similar quantities of food. It was alarming to me how much food could be wasted at the store. But this is only one step in the chain of wasted food. Food is lost in the home, at restaurants, in warehouses and packaging plants and most importantly, directly from the farms themselves. Most food is lost from the source because it is not aesthetically appealing and it cannot be sold. This food, which is no different from any of the perfect super fruits, is left to rot in the fields. At every level food is discarded that could be eaten. It’s estimated that around 30 percent of food is wasted around the world.

We don’t have a production problem, we have a perception problem. We have the capability of feeding people who go hungry across the United States, but instead farmers have to let imperfect product fall to the ground and rot because no one would buy them. Food waste happens every day, and it is happening at terrifying levels. How can we accept hunger in the world when we have the capacity to stop it? Food waste is not talked about in politics, but it needs to be.

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