It's Time to Curb your Food Waste

June 4, 2013

The local and global consequences to food waste is not only financial, but also environmental.

The United Nations Environment Programme reports that, among other things, the impact includes the waste of water, fertilizers and pesticides and results in heightened levels of methane as food begins to rot, contributing to elevated levels greenhouse gases.

While the globe prepares for World Environment Day, which is June 5, others point to ethical considerations.

In the U.S. alone, at least 30 percent of all food is thrown away each year, amounting to $48.3 million, the agency also reported, citing research that of the food wasted, 61 percent of that wast eis avoidable.

In advance of World Environment Day, we asked members of the UA community to speak about the importance of the anti-food waste movement, offering advice on ways people can make important shifts in food consumption and waste in their daily lives.

Hana Feeney, a nutrition counselor for the UA Campus Health Service, offered some everyday advice: 1) Make a weekly food plan that consists of the specific meals you will prepare, and stick to it; 2. Eat less meat and dairy. 3. Choose local foods; 4. Be mindful of how much food you body needs to maintain optimal health.

Also responding to our questions are Jill Ramirez, the coordinator of sustainability education for Residence Life, and Joseph Abraham, director of the UA Office of Sustainability.

Q: Why is it important that people become more conscious about food consumption and food waste?

Feeney: It is important to think about where food comes from. How did it get to your plate? By considering how food is grown, raised and produced we are better able to conceptualize the resources used to put food on our plates. Conscious consideration of how a food is produced gives the opportunity to make informed choices that improve the health of the environment, which nearly always improves physical and mental health as well.

Ramirez: Food production and consumption and the environment are inextricably linked. The planet needs to feed a growing population, yet industrial agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. The United Nations reports that the world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people – that’s more than the entire population. While millions of people starve, cattle in U.S. farms never go to sleep hungry.

Abraham: In many developed countries too much of the food consumed is highly processed, of limited nutritional value and with brands and marketing obscuring how the food is made, where it comes from and how it may be harmful. Also, a tremendous amount of food is thrown away, despite persistent hunger nearby. For many, eating less in the right ways can lead to improved health, but its probably more important for all people to eat enough food that is produced with the environment and social justice in mind and that is nutritious. I also think that there are many ways that reducing food waste can reduce hunger and lower the cost of food for people with limited incomes.

Andy Sessano of Southern Comfort Farms holds a bunch of carrots at the UA Farmers Market. To learn more, visit the UA Master Calendar event posting. (Photo credit: Patrick McArdle/UANews)

Q: What are the common ways and reasons why people waste food?

Feeney: People purchase too much food at the grocery store and then don't cook it or eat it all. People also waste food when they serve themselves or are served larger portions of food than their body needs. When faced with large portions, rather than "cleaning" the plate, another option is to eat less and preserve (freeze, share, eat later) the rest.

Ramirez: The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends a daily protein intake of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. That means that just six ounces of chicken is more protein than someone who weighs 150 pounds needs in an entire day. And for most Americans, that’s simply one part of one meal.

Abraham: I suspect food waste is the result of many factors including production, distribution, retail sales and cooking and using leftovers at home. I'm not sure where the biggest sources of waste are, but my young kids regularly remind me that concern about food waste is a learned behavior.

Q: What is sustainable consumption and how is this practice appropriately done?

Abraham: I am not a good weekly menu planner, so I'd start with that as a way to simplify making meals and using leftovers. I do spend a lot of time preparing meals for my family and enjoy making tasty and healthy meals with what is in the kitchen already, even when it's not obvious. I also compost, which is probably one third of our household waste by weight.

Ramirez: Our choices are about more than just the environment; we must consider how our choices affect people too. As the San Joaquin Agricultural law review notes, the “problems associated with mass meat production, on a global scale, revolve around an age-old social inequity, where the privileges of the rich detrimentally affect society's impoverished. Here, rich countries' mass meat-eating privileges impinge on the global poor's access to food and water; the more wealth a country has, the higher its rate of meat consumption, which negatively impacts the poor, landless, and female-headed households of the world more than other groups.” You can see where I’m headed: being conscious about the kinds of food we eat, even if we eat everything on the plate, can still impact not only the environment but also the planet’s people.

Sisters Reina Zaborsky (left) and Feliz Zaborsky also serve up food to visitors at the UA Farmers Market. (Photo credit: Patrick McArdle/UANews)

Q: What are some simple ways people can reduce food waste in their everyday lives and in their homes? How do you and your colleagues encourage sustainable food practices on campus?

Feeney: We have three programs that address sustainable food. The annual Food Day celebration coming up on Wednesday, October 23. The Smart Moves Food program, in coordination with the Well University and Arizona Student Unions, identifies healthy and sustainable food options in the UA's dining venues. And Cooking on Campus, which teaches students how to plan healthy, plant-based, balanced meals from scratch, incorporates meal planning and tips for cooking and freezing foods.

Abraham: The UA has many employees and students advancing sustainable food production locally and around the world, and promote healthy eating habits and reduce food waste on and off campus. I encourage people to be vocal about wanting to see more healthy food offered on campus, to support healthy living programs for employees and students, and to support food waste reduction programs including the expansion of composting though our student-run composting program, Compost Cats.

Ramirez: Simply put, the biggest way to avoid food waste is to understand your body; learn how much you want or are able to eat in a given sitting. If you do have leftovers, save them. Eat them quickly so you avoid the age old, "Well, it’s been in the fridge so long I don’t think it’s good anymore” problem. Another way to save on food waste is to be a conscientious shopper. And while I recognize a shift to a vegan diet is not realistic for most of us (I am not vegan), reducing meat intake can make a big difference.  Can you join the “Meatless Mondays” movement?  Can you commit to going veggie for at least one meal a week? What choices can you make on World Environment Day that will make an impact? I encourage you to think about the power of your plate.

Contacts: Jill Ramirez, the coordinator of sustainability education for Residence Life, at 520-626-9179 or jillramirez@life.arizona.edu; Joseph Abraham, director of the UA Office of Sustainability, at 520-621-2711 or jabraham@email.arizona.edu