It feels rather strange to be writing about the topic of wasted food once again in such short order, especially since my attention span is short and usually tends to wander from random topic to topic. But it turns out that events are happening in this domain that seem to line up with my attention being drawn to the subject.
A few weeks ago, after a lot of thought, I wrote a piece about the wastage of food, specifically bread, that I see at the food bank I volunteer at. I called the piece The Economics of Wasted Bread. Having not followed the subject too closely in the past, I felt that I might be a lonely voice in the wilderness speaking on the topic of food waste. It turns out that I was wrong.
More recently I posted a blog where I provided a link to an article addressing food wastage. I had found the link in an e-mail from an organization dealing with social issues. It turns out that there are other more capable people thinking about this subject. If you track down the links in the article I pointed to, you will see that some of the numbers quoted in there come from a report by an organization called the NRDC. If you really want to dive into the weeds on this topic, you can read their complete report here. The folks at NRDC tackle a variety of subjects of the “tree-hugging” variety, and having encountered them in a different life, I can say that the report ought to be taken with a grain of salt. But having said that, and also based on my own experiences, I have little doubt that the general tone of the report is correct and appropriate.
Whether you believe the numbers or not, the topic is in itself noteworthy, and the best person to present this topic in an entertaining manner is John Oliver.
If John Oliver is right, the concept I had of the “Expiry date” of products from the legal perspective was incorrect. But I think some my thoughts on the subject were on the right track.
So, at the end of this blog, you should know NRDC’s answer to the question as to what percentage of food produced in the United States never gets eaten. I find the numbers shocking.
PS. A thank you to my daughter for providing the link to the video.
Last week I wrote about how large quantities of bread sometimes go to waste at the food bank that I volunteer at, primarily because there is sometimes a massive oversupply of the product. This seems to happen seemingly without an adverse impact on the organization that is responsible for this oversupply of product, and in spite of the wastage it causes. Supply and demand seem to be completely independent factors in this kind of a situation in this economic model.
By pure coincidence, I recently got an e-mail from an online organization that does campaigns for social causes that addressed wastage of food all over the world. This was one of the articles that was linked in the e-mail. I am glad that I am not alone in thinking that there is a problem.
One of the things that you notice when you are sorting out products in the food bank is the presence of the expiry dates on the packaging. If I am not wrong, every packaged product for human consumption in the US has an expiry date. The issue is that the passage of the expiry date does not necessarily mean that the product has gone bad. Also, in spite of the fact that different types of product are subject to different manners of expiry, this “expiry date” concept seems to be applied and used in a uniform mindless manner in commerce. Stores remove products on or before their expiry dates from the shelves even if they are good. I expect that there are legal reasons for doing this, but sometimes removal of product before the expiry date might be done of the reason of managing appearances. I also suspect that expiry dates are generated in a conservative manner, i.e., the dates that are used are themselves well ahead of the dates when the product is expected to go bad. You try to be more flexible in terms of managing this aspect of handling products in a place like a food bank (as opposed to a store), but at the end of the day, there definitely are legal constraints to be followed everywhere.
In order to exist as a society we have to set up an bunch of rules that people agree to follow (or are forced to follow) for the betterment of the larger population. Unfortunately, the use of rules has to involve the setting up of absolutes, and thresholds for certain types of behaviors and expectations, when in fact there is often a continuum, and some ambiguity, in what constitutes reasonable logical behavior and expectation. I call this phenomenon digital behavior in an analog world. I recently wrote something on this topic. I will perhaps add an entry to my blog on this subject.
It is still a shock to me when I end up throwing all kinds of bread from the full big blue bins at the food bank into the dumpster. The sight convinces me that there is something that is wrong with a system that allows such waste. But, at the same time, it appears to me that the people in the business of selling food do not themselves think that there is an real problem that needs to be addressed. It must be that there is money being made regardless of all the waste, and perhaps the organizations responsible for all this waste believe that this is still a pretty efficient way of operating when all factors that affect their bottom line are taken into account. So they keep charging along and doing what they do. It is only a volunteer at a local food bank dealing with the tons of food he is throwing away who is making this comment. So who really cares!
So here is what happens. The food bank gets bread that is close to its expiry date from grocery stores. Since bread is a perishable product, it needs to be given out to people quickly once it gets here. The facility often ends up allowing people to take as much bread back with them as they want because they get so much of it, and because they do not want it to accumulate in the warehouse. The problem is that there is sometimes still too much bread left over, and the excess bread often needs to be thrown out into the garbage dumpsters – since there is even more bread being delivered to the food bank at the same time for the next day! If you tried to save all the bread that you got in the cooler you would not have the space for other essential items.
What must be going on is that the big grocery stores are, in general, putting more product on their shelves than they are selling. They must know that they are doing this! For some reason they can afford the waste. They are almost certainly charging prices for the bread that is much much more than its real value in terms of materials used and the cost of production. Because of their large volume of product, they are capable of operating a much more efficient system than a smaller mom-and-pop store, and they are also capable of selling this bread for a much lower price than the mom-and-pop store in spite of the tremendous amount of waste. Food is being thrown away in massive quantities! The only time you hear of the huge grocery stores running out of bread is when there is some sort of extraordinary event that is anticipated, most often related to the weather.
Isn’t there something wrong with a system in which we accept such waste without saying a word? This is especially galling when you hear of people suffering from hunger, and even starvation, even in these modern times. Why do we not speak up? Is it because many of us in this country who are relatively well-off do not see the real value of this kind of food, especially since it has become inexpensive to us? This kind of situation is not always simply a result of natural market forces. Think about farm subsidies and price controls that impact the price of grains. Separately, think about competition between the big organizations with plenty of resources and small mom-and-pop stores that are trying to make their business work with a fundamentally different cost structure for doing business, where the big guys want to put the small guys out of business by flooding the markets with lower cost products. Think about you and I trying to save a buck or two when we shop at the big stores, and our support of the system as it exists today. While you could expect any economic system to have its own biases, there is something to be said about a situation where we end up with so much waste, especially when there is so much need.
How many of you grew up in a household where the value of food was emphasized one way or the other, the general idea being that you only took what you needed, and you always tried to consume what was on your plate without throwing food away? Unfortunately it seems that this principle does not easily scale to the bigger picture. Or perhaps people do not even think in these terms any more.