At school and company cafeterias, we pile up our plates with all the most attractive looking foods. Sometimes we overestimate our stomach capacities and, too stuffed to finish the leftovers, scrape the remainder into the trash. Over the course of just a few weeks, the amount of food we’ve wasted overall as a cohort of students and workers is startling. Imagine such wasted food accumulating in every cafeteria in every university and every company. Imagine such wasted food building up in the kitchens of restaurants and cafes, along with the expired food products in grocery store aisles and home refrigerators and pantries. While wasted food accrues, 11.3 percent of the world’s population suffers from hunger and undernourishment.
If we were to collect all the wasted food in the world and redistribute it, we would be capable of feeding every hungry person in the world three times over. The quantity of food we throw out is monstrous: At the consumer level, nearly a third of untouched household food is trashed. That’s comparable to purchasing three bags of groceries but only eating two of them. We might as well leave the third bag at the checkout counter and save ourselves the effort of bringing it home to store and inevitably discard.
Where does discarded food end up? After a sorting process, food scraps are trucked, dumped, and compacted in landfills. In fact, wasted food accounts for 20 percent of all the waste sent to landfills. Not only does wasted food exacerbate the issue of limited landfill space, but the decomposition of organic material in landfills by bacteria also produces methane, intensifying environmental and climate change problems. We’re killing the world by a trash apocalypse.
In addressing hunger, the issues, then, do not seem to be the lack of production of food as much as the inability to access food already produced. A partial solution may involve saving and efficiently re-distributing excess food. In doing so, we would simultaneously reduce global environmental pollution while helping to address food deprivation.
Individually, we can reduce wasted food through small changes: serving ourselves smaller portions, sharing larger orders or bringing leftovers home, using shopping lists, only buying the necessary items and taking note of expiration and “sell-by” dates.
Donating to food banks is also an option for unused food products. Investing in organizations that recover and distribute food to those who have a need for it locally and internationally is a step in the right direction. By altering the ways we handle our excess food, wasted food can be diverted and used instead to help feed the millions of people who can’t live their lives to the fullest because of hunger and undernourishment.
Yet it is often not feasible to divert all wasted food to feed people, or even in their best interests. First, donations are accompanied by distribution limitations and cannot target all those with food insecurity. Second, relying on food donations alone may create a lack of food choice and food quality, which would subtract from the dignity of food assistance. Perhaps we can further encourage food pantries by offering financial support, providing the pantries with the leverage to purchase and provide a greater variety of high quality, nourishing foods for food pantry clients.
Although the prevention and redistribution of wasted food to reduce hunger isn’t an all-encompassing solution, and cannot replace longer-term measures addressing poverty, it may help to reduce food insecurity for the short-term. It is therefore time for each of us to step up to the plate and play our individual role in helping to take food insecurity into our own hands.
Jocelyn Chang is a clinical research assistant at Johns Hopkins Medicine.