This month, Mid-Continent Public Library will once again offer its Food for Fines program. From May 7 – 13, customers can bring boxed or canned nonperishable food items to pay off overdue fines of up to $10. It is a great way to resolve a debt and help those in the local community dealing with food insecurity. This is an issue affecting a surprising number of people in the United States—especially considering the amount of perfectly good food thrown away every year in this country. So why is it that we are tossing so much away?
I was looking in my refrigerator recently and was very dismayed when I saw all the empty space. I live alone and don’t have to buy that much food, certainly not enough to fill my rather large refrigerator. Yet despite the fact that I have all I need, that space just feels wrong. My brain keeps telling me, “The fridge should be full. The fridge should be full.” In the past, I have even bought more food than I needed just because I hated the look of that empty fridge. Shamefully, some of that food ended up in the garbage.
This is not an uncommon occurrence in the United States. The average U.S. refrigerator is nearly twice the size of those in Europe. When we end up buying more food than we can eat, it is inevitable that some of it will go to waste… all because our brains keep telling us to fill up that fridge. And this is not the only way our minds can trick us into wasting food. In the book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food (And What We Can Do About It), author Jonathan Bloom talks about the other ways our thoughts control our food purchases.
For example, take produce. We like pretty produce. We like it to look exactly like the produce that we see in TV commercials. But just because a fruit or vegetable doesn’t look that pretty, doesn’t mean that it tastes bad or is unsafe to eat. This fact doesn’t seem to matter, though, because ugly produce just won’t sell. As a result, many grocery stores end up tossing perfectly good produce away. It seems our brains just can’t help discriminating against those poor, ugly apples and bananas.
Our need for pretty packaging also extends to dented cans and torn boxes. Even though this type of damage rarely has any effect on the food product contained inside, we still don’t like buying these items. So grocery stores end up with inventory that doesn’t sell—for no other reason than the beat-up look of the container.
Then there is the confusion about the dates on food. Many people are confused as to what “Sell by,” “Best by,” and “Use by” actually mean. According to Bloom in American Wasteland, the “Sell by” date tells stores when the item should be removed from the shelf. The manufacturer believes the product will no longer be at its best after that day. The “Best by” date does the exact same thing but is meant for the customer. Even the “Use by” date is more about freshness than food safety. And most of the dates are based on guesswork, not science.
This system is very confusing and leaves many people thinking that the product is no longer safe; so once that date comes to pass, they simply throw it away. This leaves a lot of food in the trash that could be consumed. It also means that supermarkets are left with a lot of unpurchased stock because shoppers will see the date on the container and refuse to buy the product. The truth is that your eyes and nose are a better way to determine whether food is okay—more so than the date stamped on the package.
In the past, I have been guilty of all of the above situations. When I shopped for produce, I did judge it based on how it looked, not whether it was still edible. I didn’t like to buy dented cans. I was nervous about opening packages on which the “Best by” dates had passed. Then there was that empty-looking fridge. Oh, that space did haunt me so!
However, after reading American Wasteland, I have vowed to try to improve. Those lonely looking, slightly bruised apples will find a home with me. Torn box? No problem. And that fridge will stay filled with wide-open spaces. And we all can do these little things. Especially when we know that there are so many in our community who would gladly welcome all the food that we are so quickly tossing away.