The economics of leftovers

When I was a little girl who sometimes turned up my nose at the meal on my plate, my mother would remind me that there were children in China and Africa who had no food. I couldn’t see how my refusing to eat my broccoli had anything to do with other hungry children. I’m not sure if my mother’s admonishment was intended to make me feel guilty for not appreciating the fine food I was being given or if the implication was that my being wasteful and picky somehow made me responsible for others’ hunger.

Our planet is rich with resources. A couple of hundred years ago, no one would have believed that it might be possible to use up all the cod fish in the ocean, to kill most of the elephants in Africa, to cut too many trees from the Amazon rainforest, or to pump all the easily accessible oil out of the ground. Water ran down mountain streams and filled rivers abundantly. When Europeans first came to this continent, the trees, water, minerals and land must have seemed inexhaustible.

It is not surprising that we developed an economy which is based on continually growing consumption. Of all the stuff produced in the world, less than 1 percent of all the resources and raw materials used to produce it is still there six months later. The other 99 percent is waste. We no longer fix things, we throw them out and buy new versions. We discard appliances because they are no longer the right color. We get rid of last year’s clothing because it is out of style. All the stuff we buy is wrapped, boxed, labelled, and wrapped again. We carry it home in disposable bags.

The USDA estimates that 27 percent of the food available for eating in the United States is wasted. More than one-fourth of our food is simply put in the landfill. That includes dinner left on the plate of picky children and teenagers with eyes bigger than their stomachs. It also includes damaged and expired grocery stocks, unused deli dishes and restaurant excess.

A while ago I ordered a salad at an upscale, white tablecloth restaurant. The plate of mixed greens, grilled chicken, strawberries, almonds and other garnishes was the size of the serving platter I use for a family of four. The salad was delicious, but there was no way anyone could, or should have, eaten all of it in one meal. I was staying at a hotel and didn’t have any way to keep the leftovers for later. Half the salad was thrown away. The other half went to a different kind of waist. Restaurants have increased portion size to give customers the perception of increased value as they have raised their prices. The increased cost of the food is minor compared to the other rising costs of running a restaurant–labor, freight, utilities, rent, etc. Customers leave the dining room thinking, “I really got my money’s worth.”

Food waste makes up 12 percent of the material put in our landfills and contributes a significant part of the cost of garbage collection. Very little is composted. Food waste in the garbage dump creates methane, attracts flies and rodents and increases the amount of fuel needed to haul the stuff away.

Perhaps increased food costs will stimulate a renewed taste for leftovers. Even if we can afford to throw away food, the cost of our wastefulness doesn’t only affect us. Our wasteful habits drives up the demand for all the resources that go into producing food. It is becoming obvious that the earth’s abundance is not limitless. Demand for the increasingly scarce resources needed to grow crops and livestock results in higher prices around the world. When the cost of a cup of rice doubles, those who live on a dollar or two a day have no option but to eat less than an already inadequate diet. The worldwide price of food does affect hungry children in this country and elsewhere.

When I was a picky little girl, I didn’t understand the connection between the food on my plate and starving children on the other side of the globe, but my mother was right.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains