The war on food waste is a waste of time

Efforts to reduce the amount of food in landfills produce a lot of pretty infographics but very little change to a deeply flawed food system.

The war on food waste is a waste of time

Efforts to reduce the amount of food in landfills produce a lot of pretty infographics but very little change to a deeply flawed food system.

Last month, Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, introduced bipartisan legislation that would tackle the amount of food wasted in schools. Of the almost 30 million lunches dished out by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) each year, comprising some 18 billion calories, around 21 percent of those calories go uneaten, according to the Department of Agriculture. The main intervention of the so-called School Food Recovery Act aims to provide grants to schools participating in the NSLP that, as Rep. Pingree told CivilEats, “would give us the chance to educate a whole new generation about how much food gets wasted and why it isn’t a good thing to participate in.”

This isn’t just a problem in American schools — food waste is often portrayed as a matter of global concern. Marshalling statistics that suggest that up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. gets thrown away, or that a third of the world’s food goes uneaten, all manner of characters have made food waste their own fight, drawing connections to both the environmental harms of wasted food and the possibility that uneaten food could feed hungry people.

Mom-and-pop charity groups, major environmental NGOs, most of the largest U.S. food retailers, philanthropies, venture capital-backed startups that hawk misshapen fruits and vegetables, the Pope, et al. have all called out the depravity of wasted food in the context of widespread hunger and climate change and find themselves a part of the same struggle.

Famously unconcerned with both food insecurity and a warming planet, even the Trump administration has made food waste a hallmark of the executive branch’s environmental and social policy, going so far as to declare April “food waste awareness” month and also using waste-talk to justify the classification of pasta as a vegetable.

Everyone and their mother appears to have enlisted in the war on food waste, and the School Food Recovery Act would only draft more and younger recruits. Amid a full-scale mobilization, might there be an industrial complex that stands to benefit? Might these clarion calls to cut food waste be a case of crying over spilled milk?

Food waste is frequently articulated as an environmental crisis, a claim that rests on two arguments. The first is clearly climate-oriented: When food waste ends up in a landfill, it rots and produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas that warms the planet. In this argument, households are largely to blame, and the solutions put forward to address household food waste mostly center on policing behavior, whether through more judicious domestic labor or patronizing public education campaigns aimed at addressing consumer confusion.

Much like paper straws or canvas totes, though, well-meaning small changes miss the forest of structural change for the trees of lifestyle tweaking. The object of thrown-away food bears scrutiny, even though it is the way we dispose of food — mostly dumping it in landfills — that generates methane emissions. Large-scale composting or biogas generation, which could actually put a dent in this methane problem, often require public investment and political will — something consumer-focused finger-pointing does not.

Wasting less food in a shitty food system won’t make that system any less shitty

The other environmental appeal anti-waste advocates make is what is often referred to as the “embedded inputs” argument. Because producing food entails the use of land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, and transportation (the list goes on), food waste is often seen as the wasting of all of these inputs as well. Sustainability professionals refer to these inputs as “embedded” or “embodied,” in that foodstuffs are seen to have a footprint of the environmental impacts that it took to produce them — a green pepper carries with it all of the resources used to get it to your counter.

This kind of thinking is what allows holy texts of food waste panic to claim that when we waste food, we also waste 19 percent of agricultural lands, 21 percent of the water used in agriculture, and 18 percent of all fertilizer applied to farms (in the U.S., at least). It is what allows the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization to declare that food waste is responsible for 3.3 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases, which is inclusive of all of the emissions attributable to the growing, harvesting, processing, transportation, and distribution.

This creative accounting suggests that wasting less food would somehow undo all of the harms of food production. But the nutrient cycle does not care whether or not you clean your plate. All the environmental impacts that brought that meal into being are done deals; in the parlance of introductory economics, they are “sunk costs.” In focusing so much on waste, we give a pass to the way things are further upstream. There is a rosy assumption that wasting less food would make it back up the supply chain in the most impressive game of telephone ever and signal to farmers to grow less food. But that seems unlikely in an agricultural paradigm staked by subsidies that incentivize the overproduction of four or five commodity crops, where farmers are subjugated by the demands of fewer and fewer agribusiness firms rather than consumers.

Obsessing over the environmental impacts of food gone unconsumed eclipses more interesting questions we might ask of food production that don’t take for granted the ecological devastation seemingly inherent to contemporary U.S. agriculture. Wasting less food in a shitty food system won’t make that system any less shitty, and yet rarely does that realization rear its head. Like the out-of-fashion concept of food miles that launched a locavore movement, taking stock of food waste’s supposed environmental impacts appears to be more rhetorically useful than it is a reliable reflection of where and how those harms come about and who is culpable for them.

If food waste can’t save the planet, can uneaten food at least feed people? Never far from the reminder that perhaps 40 percent of food is wasted are statistics that spell out rates of food insecurity (“one in eight Americans struggle with hunger”). The EPA’s food recovery hierarchy, which “prioritizes actions organizations can take to prevent and divert wasted food,” ranks “feeding hungry people” (their language, not mine) near the top, second to reducing food waste at its source. If food insecurity were merely the result of a lack of food, then diverting food to “hungry people” might simultaneously address the scourge of hunger and food waste reduction. This is the basis of campaigns like Kroger’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste initiative, a “commitment to end hunger in our communities and eliminate waste across our company by 2025.”

But hunger is an incident of poverty, a problem that no amount of food redistribution can seriously tackle. In her 1998 book Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, sociologist Janet Poppendieck controversially argued that, rather than seriously addressing the problem of hunger, food shelves and other nodes of the charity-based “emergency food system” unintentionally served to perpetuate it in their feeble attempts to mend the holes in the social safety net wrought by Reagan-era bootstrapping and Clinton-era welfare reform. Rather than focus more structurally on workers’ rights and economic justice issues, organizations and institutions coalescing around fighting hunger concerned themselves with addressing immediate needs in ways that did not rock the boat politically.

Twenty years later, and Poppendieck’s indictment of charitable food efforts rings true today — hunger hits hard in our present Gilded Age, and the organizations trying to do something about hunger appear to play as much a role in fomenting it. Andrew Fisher’s Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, published two years ago, is in some ways a redux of Sweet Charity; Fisher follows the money to show how anti-hunger networks like Feeding America are largely bankrolled by shiny corporate interests like Walmart and Kroger. On its own, this seems uncontroversial. But in light of the fact that these same companies notoriously undermine worker protections and pay workers measly wages — while consistently lobbying Washington to keep wages suppressed — claims to fighting hunger are straight-up deceitful.

One advocate neatly summed up the way waste diversion only further bifurcates food access between those deserving of the dignity of provisioning their own food, and the undeserving: “garbage food for garbage people.”

Kroger and Walmart provide excellent case studies in this duplicity. As the company aspires to “give more than 3 billion meals by 2025” to feed people and reduce waste, Kroger was reported last year to be a prolific employer of food stamp enrollees — suggesting that the wages they offer are so low that they qualify for federal food assistance. As Walmart works “to reduce food waste from farm to fork,” it underpays its employees and, according to some, has leveraged its anti-competitive market power to support industrialized, resource-intensive kinds of agriculture that pose environmental harms much greater than any food waste reduction efforts could make up for.

Some emergency food providers, refusing to be tied down by the strings attached to foundation money, have recognized the shortcomings of food waste solutionism entering the sphere of anti-hunger work. Nick Saul, the CEO of Toronto-based Community Food Centres Canada, has written about how serving underpaid people the “castoffs of the industrial food system” is not only instrumentally silly but undignified and offensive. The ethic of care that terms like “gleaning,” “rescue,” and “recovery” suggest of food waste diversion holds up poorly in this light. Elsewhere, one advocate neatly summed up the way waste diversion only further bifurcates food access between those deserving of the dignity of provisioning their own food, and the undeserving: “garbage food for garbage people.”

By focusing on food waste, corporate actors wash their hands of their responsibility to ensure their workers are paid — and therefore fed — just as fast as they punt responsibility for environmental action to consumers. Food waste’s anti-hunger bent doesn’t only divert food from landfills — it diverts our attention from food justice.

Summoning these very arguments, a well-knit constellation of media sources gives credence to the fervor. Popular late aughts books like Waste and American Wasteland took sharper swipes at corporate actors for their wastefulness, yet the food waste “movement” that has come in their wake has been arguably duller. Glossy documentaries like Just Eat It (2014) and Wasted (2017) feature celebrity chefs (like the disgraced Mario Batali) and food-industry consultants who are for some reason positioned as visionaries of radical change while remaining disappointingly apolitical.

Interestingly, scholars have cited these more popular texts as grounds for further academic inquiry into food waste, and research institutes have foregrounded waste in broader food systems study. Centers at places like Johns Hopkins and Harvard churn out studies, white papers, and policy briefs that further ensnare themselves in food waste discourse. In turn, most major environmental organizations have taken up the mantle, most notably the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Wildlife Fund (full disclosure: I was an intern at Harvard’s program in 2014). And while corporate funding isn’t so far away — such centers host conferences with food industry scions and interest groups — the uptake of a problem whose solutions almost exclusively benefit corporate actors, incidentally or intentionally, is evidence of influence enough.

Writers often fail to see “both sides” of the food-waste problem, reporting it as a straightforward, common sense issue where supermarkets and restaurants doing anything about it are the heroes of the story. They repeat nonsensical food waste memes to get at food waste’s scale, like “if food waste were a country” — it isn’t — “it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S.,” if only because they lend themselves well to sleek infographics. (A bar chart wondering if the global fossil fuels industry were a country would make even less sense, as those emissions are magnitudes of scale more than China’s.) Vox published a video calling food waste the world’s “dumbest problem,” not because of its lamentable narrowness, but because it is so allegedly solvable.

Food waste’s reach has entered the policy-making arena, even beyond those Trump bureaucrats behind the revolving door. The aforementioned Rep. Pingree, known for her food movement proclivities, has made food waste a topic of legislation, founding a Congressional food recovery caucus and proposing laws that would reform date labels or support food recovery efforts like her school-based effort, often under the banner of bipartisanship. Food industry titans by and large support measures like this, and Walmart has already implemented date-label reforms internally, even without government intervention. Rather than seeing the cross-aisle appeal of food waste as a virtue, this shows just how willing Democrats are to feed into a business-friendly problem diagnosis. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders has a tropey food waste line item in his Green New Deal proposal. Food waste-as-crisis is apparently intractable.

Food waste’s anti-hunger bent doesn’t only divert food from landfills — it diverts our attention from food justice.

Food waste’s appeal tends to be located in its obviousness, animating both sweeping, large-scale schemes and also individual action. One popular (if apolitical) environmental initiative called Project Drawdown, which ranks what its researchers have determined are the “100 most substantive solutions” to global warming, puts food waste reduction as solution No. 3 to address the climate crisis. So the suggestion that food waste as an organizing concept is something of a misdiagnosis can be understandably deflating, but so is the idea that so much political will, human capital, philanthropic dollars, social-sector sweat and tears, and get-out-of-accountability-free goodwill is being flooded into a diagnosis that only serves the status quo.

This is not to deny the material reality that, nationally and globally, we produce more food than we consume. It is to wonder whether or not that matters, especially when the present moment demands a more transformational understanding of what the problem is. Movements for food justice have a response to this call — organizers and activists connect food waste’s twin stakes of hunger and climate change not to the mismanagement of resources, but to the structural racism, economic injustice, and environmental harm that have been foundational to food systems in the U.S. and the world over. If we were to take seriously a unified approach to addressing the environmental hazards and food insecurity posed by the way we structure food systems, we might shift our gaze away from ugly fruits and vegetables and toward farmworkers, who simultaneously face the highest exposure to toxic agricultural chemicals (which often co-pollute with greenhouse gases) and the highest rates of food insecurity in the U.S.

The Los Angeles Times’ 2014 exposé of Mexican megafarms painted an ugly picture of the ways that the laborers who grow the food we eat are violently exploited. In the series, titled “Product of Mexico,” reporter Richard Marosi narrates the litany of offenses against farmworkers that are made possible by weak regulations and predatory tactics and abetted by U.S.-based buyers like Walmart, showing how they are complicit in what amounts to modern-day slavery. A pithy yet powerful observation he returns to throughout the series is how produce moving through supply chains is pampered even more than the people picking it.

In many ways, the undue attention to food waste is its own kind of pampering. It is a corporate handout that comes at the expense of the people who bear the disproportionate brunt of food systems harms, especially along lines of race and class. Perhaps the time has come to retire food-waste panic — to stop giving cover to powerful agrifood interests — and consider how people in food systems are treated as disposable. Anything else is just a waste of time.

Austin Bryniarski is a writer based in New Haven.