When I moved to Japan, one of the first phrases I learned was “mottainai”: Don’t waste! Even coming from a very waste-averse family, I had never before felt such incredible pressure to clear my plate and use up every piece of produce I bought… a real challenge in the countryside where there’s someone around every corner waiting to gift you with a bag of locally grown fruit. Even my lunchbox was emblazoned with a reminder, “Mottainai!” It definitely changed my relationship with food.
Yet as a single person who loves cooking, getting just the right amount of ingredients is one of my greatest struggles. It’s sickening – to both my values and my wallet – how many vegetables end up in the trash because I can’t eat them in time. And it’s not just me. The problem of food waste is on a scale far beyond the capacity of individuals’ control. Food waste starts before the ingredients ever make it to market. It happens in the back kitchen long before I stare at those five remaining bites on my plate. Really solving the problem of food waste requires cooperation on many levels, particularly from retail and productions. Fortunately, there’s some exciting changes gaining traction in that direction.
The Department of Agriculture estimates that a third of available food in stores goes uneaten, adding up to a staggering 133 billion pounds of waste and a $162 billion loss. The Environmental Protection Agency goes on to say that Americans now throw out another 35 million pounds of food at home, tripled since 1960. With the global population on the rise, it’s absolutely vital that we be more efficient not only in what we eat or how we grow our food, and also ensure minimal waste at each point in the supply chain.
In order to limit waste, there are 4 Key Initiatives:
First let’s take a look at those initiatives that come down to personal choices around initial purchases. Part Two will tackle the challenge of what to do with what’s not eaten.
ENOUGH IS AS GOOD AS A FEAST: Rethinking Portions
Getting the right amount of food can be particularly hard in America. Since the 1960s, the abundance of cheap food has caused portion sizes to balloon wildly. Today, many of us are deeply confused about how much we should be eating in the first place and our dishes don’t make it easier as they’ve grown too. Studies have shown that larger plates and glasses mean larger servings which feel like less. When we’re given more food, we simply eat more without realizing it.
There’s also an economic component as we often buy larger sizes than necessary because it’s a better value for that price. Because of the American penchant for buying in bulk or seeking value at low price for large quantity, single servings have become “premium”. The current system wastes a lot of food and money. I often find myself in need of single carrot and my options are buy one organic carrot or a three pound bag (plus buy one get one free) for disturbingly comparable prices. My desire not to waste constantly wars with my reluctance to leave money on the table.
I became most aware of this mindset when Coca-Cola tried out a new pricing strategy in Japan. When they offered multiple sizes at the same price, I immediately gravitated to the largest size available while the Japanese around me typically took the smaller size that was just enough. By comparison, when Coca-Cola introduced mini cans to the American market, they were positioned as premium with a higher price tag.
There’s not been a lot of innovation in this area from food producers, but retail has started experimenting with bulk as a zero-waste approach to both packaging and the food itself. At Whole Foods one can purchase just the right amount of spices, for example, which means greater freshness, a lower price, and less waste. As such, it permits customers more freedom to expand their palates as well. After all, who among us hasn’t been deterred from a new recipe by the cost of a list of ingredients we don’t regularly stock?
HOPE FOR AESTHETICALLY CHALLENGED PRODUCE
Foreign supermarkets also revealed how little I knew about what fruits and vegetables naturally looked like. Suddenly I found out that the rest of the world’s grapes are not predominantly seedless and can even have thick skins (shedding light on the old song “Peel Me a Grape”). Many young American simply have no frame of reference for the natural diversity of foods’ appearance. In some ways, American consumers aren’t even really getting a chance to be so shallow that we insist on perfect looking fruit. Recent generations may be so accustomed to this pre-selected produce that we simply don’t know how to tell if something is perfectly fine inside.
It’s been estimated that between 20-30% of a crop may be fine to eat but not sold because its appearance isn’t up to snuff due to weather or insect damage. Some of the ugly fruit finds its way to nonprofits, like Feeding America, or is incorporated into frozen products and recently Whole Foods is making a place for aesthetically challenged fruit in order to cut food waste and appeal to sustainability and savings conscious Millennials. Yet despite this apparent glut of waste, it can still be a challenge for stores to reliably source large amounts of imperfect produce, so rather than a separate branded line stores must develop an ad hoc model.
There are also more companies looking to give less-than-lovely produce a home in the heart of their business model. Barnana, for example, turns “ugly” bananas into a dehydrated snack loaded with potassium. It hardly matters how pretty fruit is when you’re making juice so cold-pressed juice companies are leading the effort to re-purpose what would otherwise go to waste.