Wasting food

I hate to see food wasted. I really, really hate it. I will try and eat everything in the fridge, even if I don’t like it, if the alternative is throwing it away. I will cut out the bits of food that are spoiled and eat the rest. It is not that I am cheap. It is just that I think that throwing food away should be the absolute last resort. It really bothers me that so much food is wasted in the US. Part of it is due to the sheer size and complexity of the food distribution system in which the producer and consumer are separated by such vast distances that some wastage is inevitable in storage and transportation. This is perhaps understandable as an unavoidable consequence of creating complex societies.

What bothers me more is the wastage of food that is avoidable and I will list the many ways it happens in increasing order of seriousness.

  1. A lot of food is thrown away by food stores simply because it does not look good, such as fruits that are slightly bruised, even though they are perfectly good to eat. We have got used to thinking that every apple and pear must be unblemished because that is how they are displayed in stores, presumably because the workers systematically remove even the slightly ‘unsightly’ ones from the racks. Why don’t they follow the policy of some clothing stores where they have racks of slightly defective clothes at lower prices and have a section of the store where slightly imperfect food is sold at a discounted rate rather than being thrown away? One sees this sometimes in the meat racks where prices are lowered if the expiry date is near.
  2. Then there is the deliberate and gratuitous waste of food. One form of this that irks me are those food eating contests, where people compete to see who can eat the most hot dogs or hamburgers and the like in a limited time. It is nauseating to watch people cramming food into their mouths when they are not hungry.
  3. Another thing that I find peculiar are those buffets that are promoted as ‘all you can eat’. I can understand the idea of a fixed price for a buffet style menu because it is hard to keep track of what people may select and a buffet enables people to sample from a wide range of foods. What bothers me is that some people think that in order to get one’s money’s worth one must stuff oneself to the maximum. Eating when one is not hungry or when it does not give any pleasure seems peculiar. Apparently in Europe such places advertise as ‘all that you care to eat’, which is a slight improvement in encouraging a healthier attitude.
  4. Even worse is when food is used in non-nutritional ways. One example is butter sculptures.  What’s wrong with using sand or clay to demonstrate your sculpting skill? Why butter? Why would you use a perfectly nutritious food that could be eaten by someone?  But more scandalous is to use food as fuel. The idea of taking grains that could be converted into food and using it to make ethanol and other fuels strikes me as a terrible idea. Sure the world needs energy but it needs food more. We live in a world where a lot of people are hungry. Food is a precious commodity whose cost is rising rapidly, making it increasingly inaccessible for larger numbers of people. To use it to satiate our hunger for fuel is wrong.
  5. The absolute worst form of food waste is deliberately destroying it to keep prices high. It used to be the case that the US used to buy grain from farmers and then dump it into the ocean. At one time this caused a scandal and one does not hear about this practice anymore but whether that is because it has stopped or people have got used to it, I don’t know.

I understand the economics of the matter. But in a world in which ‘food insecurity’ (the phenomenon in which people are unsure about their ability to secure food in the future), not to mention outright hunger and starvation, are widespread, the idea of paying people to not grow food, or deliberately destroying it in order to keep prices high strikes me as borderline criminal. Surely we can do better than that.

Samantha Bee had a clip some time ago about this topic. She said that in the US we throw out about one pound of food per person per day. About 43% of that waste is thrown out by us consumers, more than restaurants and grocery stores.

John Oliver also had an old clip where he discussed how the ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ dates on products can result in a lot of good food being thrown away.


  1. Some Old Programmer says

    The poor know full well that supermarkets dump unsalable food. When I was a kid, our neighbor would visit supermarket dumpsters to take food that was “good enough”. And he would share the take with us. I can recognize the characteristic pitting carrots have when some form of decay is washed off; take a peeler to it, and it was, indeed, good enough.

  2. johnson catman says

    Mano: It looks like you have an unclosed italics tag somewhere that is affecting everything below it.

    [Sorry about that! I have corrected it. Mano]

  3. Jazzlet says

    Some supermarkets in the UK now sell less-than-perfect fruit and vegetables, Morrisons does so under the “wonky” label. I buy the wonky versions mostly because there isn’t anything wrong with them and I want to encourage the practice. In some cases the wonky veg are better than the “perfect” veg, for some reason particularly avocados.

    My mother grew up during the 1930s recession, then started her independant life during WWII, and food waste just didn’t happen under her watch. I learnt not only how to cook, but how to use up any left-overs. I find it very difficult to throw food out, even when it will be composted, and try to make sure we don’t let any food get to the point it should be thrown out. We do have a bit of a running joke about not being allowed to eat “in-date” food, though that won’t last much longer as several of the shops we use have decided to eliminate “use-by” dates, at least on vegetables. It makes a lot of sense, if you shop weekly you can’t buy fresh vegetable that will be in date for the whole week, even though most will still be good to use.

    Why is my reply in all italics? *twitches*

  4. Katydid says

    There are a couple of companies out there that sell blemished fruit and veg to the public. We used one during the pandemic and it was handy because you could order just what you needed. In contrast, we belonged to several CSAs over the year and one of the biggest frustrations was getting (for example) about six pounds of tomatillos a week, for several weeks, *as the only veg*. Nobody in the house likes tomatillos so what we couldn’t leave on the CSA pickup table or foist off on neighbors got sent right to the compost bin.

  5. mnb0 says

    ” It really bothers me that so much food is wasted in the US. ”
    It’s 50 kg per person in The Netherlands every year -- ie about as much. I’ve written before that the Dutch tend to take over every bad American habit.

  6. says

    From when I was a kid back in the 60s through to my 30s, it was common to see certain fruits (and sometimes vegetables) that were “over ripe” offered at large mark-downs in the large local grocery stores. Bananas were a favorite. They were usually fully yellow with some brown spots, or exactly the way we’d like to eat them. My mother would buy 10 or 15 pounds worth as they’d be half to a quarter of the price of the green ones (yecch). They’d be gone in a matter of days, and a few would be used for banana bread (yum). Sometimes they would package up tomatoes, peppers, and the like, too. Unfortunately, I have not seen discounted “over ripe” bananas at the local stores in many years.

    Another issue regarding food waste is the now common huge dinner portion served at many establishments. You have the option of either stuffing yourself to the gills or leaving food on the plate to be thrown away. My understanding is that over-large portions have become the norm because the food is the cheapest part of the meal (i.e., compared to rent, utilities, labor, etc.) so the size is bulked up in order to make the meal appear to be a “better value”. I don’t understand this line of thinking because most people don’t go out for a meal because it’s inexpensive. You can make almost any meal at home for substantially less cost.

    In any event, these days when my spouse and I order take out, we often get a single meal and split it. It’s usually sufficient. And if it’s not, it’s easy enough to supplement it with something from the ‘fridge. And if we stop somewhere for an ice cream in the summer, we almost always order “kiddie cones”. No matter where we go, it seems that a “small” is now two full scoops. Kiddie cones are usually one scoop (which is probably too much for a small child anyway, but hey, let’s get them hooked to bad but profitable eating habits early, right?).

  7. jacob letoile says

    I dont know much about most of the reasons fie waste you posited, but I do know something about the agricultural ones. The USA decided that growing its own food, and grains were the base of that, was in its national security interest. But it was to expensive to grow it all here when it could be bought overseas cheaper. So we enacted the CRP program and the government also stabilized grain prices. The CRP program was not intended to protect wildlife habitat, although it did an exemplary job at that, it was intended to conserve our production capacity buy incentivising farmers to not plant land that could otherwise be planted. This reduced the supply. The USA then bought grain to further reduce the supply to keep prices high enough to convince farmers to keep growing the grain. It may have had unintended consequences, but it was a thought out plan.

  8. lanir says

    As far as point #1, to some degree Aldi stores sell items that are imperfect. They historically also paid cashiers higher wages than competitors, at least in the small midwestern town I grew up in.

    When I had just moved away from my parents and lived with some more experienced friends they would take me shopping in waves. First we’d go to Aldi and similar stores and buy everything we could. Then anything that wasn’t there we’d buy at another store that would be a bit more expensive. The stores were relatively close to each other so fuel prices didn’t discourage this.

  9. lanir says

    Sorry to add a very late comment to this but I remembered something. My grandparents were adults during WWII and my parents grew up during or shortly after it. They all had different ideas about food because they had gone through shortages. I picked up some of their practices about trying to eat everything. But I don’t do as well at that as my grandparents would have. I also don’t hide cash around my home because I’ve not lived through a depression. My grandparents did.

    I know there’s a certain way of thinking where you would take this information and decide that younger generations are somehow lesser. The idea certainly seems to grow more popular with any given person as they grow older. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. People learn from their life experiences and then change how they act based on them. I know that’s a whole other can of worms yet it seems the best explanation to me. If someone never has to skip a meal and fight off hunger pangs while wondering where they might get their next meal from, food preservation can seem like a strange and distant concern. It can be learned but without a need to practice it daily it probably lacks a sense of urgency.

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