Surprising Place to find Food Waste

I spent this morning volunteering at a food pantry. While I did a few different things – sort out toiletries and organize food for different purposes, carefully layering canned goods on the bottom and dry goods on the top to keep the boxes from being overburdened – the biggest thing I did was… throw away food.

Let me back up for a moment: recently, there was a large, city-wide food drive that brought in thousands and thousands of pounds of food. It’s been an incredibly successful initiative, and everyone is psyched that, at a lean time of the year, a ton of food is coming in. I personally am also psyched, and was more than thrilled to come in and help sort the food at the warehouse where it’s being held and then distributed to the individual pantries where it will get to the people who need it.

However.

Some people, probably including me, didn’t go to the grocery store and buy up whatever was on sale in the canned goods aisle. Instead, they looked at their pantry or some shelves in their basement and grabbed things they’d had for a while that no one seemed to be eating. This seems like the opposite of waste at first: you take things that you already paid good money for and give them a new life.

The problem with this became apparent to me when I was instructed to sort food with far-off expiration dates, food with dates in the next 4 months, and food that had already expired. The far-off dates will be given to the local pantries; the next-4-months food will be specifically allocated to places that can move it immediately; but the rest? I was instructed to chuck it in a bin, along with anything that came open in transit or was dented.

A well-reputed food bank has to deal with a lot of pressures, and while I’m sure that individual people who are hungry may make the decision to eat expired can food (after all, the date does just say “best by” not “will hurt you by”), they cannot afford to have someone furious at them over a bad meal out of an expired can. I realized as I heaved can after can of food into the trash that what I normally do (donate food I have gathering dust in my pantry) is a terrible idea for two reasons: firstly, anything expired will go from “maybe eaten in my household, when I feel like risking it” to “definitely in the trash”, and secondly, I make the job of sorting that volunteers and hardworking non-profit coordinators do that much longer, more tedious, and frankly a bit saddening.

This is not to talk bad about people who donate to food banks – honestly, that group of people are already pretty wonderful just to be taking time out of their day to help. Still, I thought that food waste was an important thing to consider, and it made me want to check my own cupboard as I work on my “cupboard cleanout” to make sure I use up the near-to-expiring goods. I’m aware of that with veggies and meats, but rarely with canned goods.

So here’s my question, food friends: what do you do to prevent waste in your kitchen? I’m a novice and fresh from an experience of throwing lots of food away, and I’m ready to be a part of the solution, even though I bet there’s more food waste in my life than I ever thought. Together, maybe, we can start habits that help us overall waste less, which benefits our community as much as any of our recipe-sharing and storytelling does.

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7 comments on “Surprising Place to find Food Waste

  1. Deborah Ray says:

    Oh man, that’s tragic. Would they still be willing to give the expired foods to someone who could pick them up in bulk? Maybe someone could be found on Freecycle or Craigslist to take up this task.

    As for my personal food waste, I just buy less food. The less choice I have, the more likely any given item in my fridge or pantry will look appetizing. Sometimes I underestimate and end up the week with nothing to eat but rice and lentils, but it’s worth it to me to not have to throw away perfectly good food. And if I have too much of something that’s freezeable (including fruit, meat, breads, and beans), I immediately stick most of it in the freezer and take it out as needed. Good luck with your food waste reduction efforts!

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  2. i shop as required (I stopped making automatic, one lump weekly sum grocery shopping a whole ago), and freeze left overs if I will not eat them soon, and make an effort to finish what I have in the fridge prior to buying extra items.

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  3. Your article was truly insightful. I was taught at any early age not to waste food and that philosophy has carried over into adulthood. I never buy more than I need. I throw all produce,scraps, coffee and tea grounds in my composter or I trench bury them directly in the garden.

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  4. It’s so sad to read that so much good food simply goes to waste 😦 I’m afraid I am guilty of impulse shopping. I randomly pick up items I am convinced I want to try out in a recipe soon and they languish in my cupboard until near expiry. Fortunately my mum lives nearby and I make it a point to pass on any items I am not using so she can salvage them. I am trying to be better about these impulses and about only shopping for ingredients I know I will use up. I also make more frequent shopping trips rather than stockpiling a month in advance as many tend to do here. I think menu planning is invaluable when it comes to being organized about purchases and ingredient utilization.

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  5. Linda says:

    Thanks for helping to make folks aware of this subject. It’s good to have a peek behind the food bank scenes to know what happens to the food donated…Probably most who donate expired food are thinking, “Well, I don’t want it but someone will be happy to have it,’ not realising where it will end up.
    My grocery store has regular food bank promotions in which they send out coupons for staple items. When you check out you can give one or all the coupons to the cashier, pay for the items, and the food will be donated en masse to the food bank. I imagine it avoids problems similar to what you mention, though I end up donating some food (canned meat in particular) that I would never otherwise buy!
    Regarding preventing waste in my kitchen – I try to just buy what we need for the week. Doesn’t always work and I hate seeing a half bag of slimy spinach on the shelf. At least we now have organic recycling in my neighborhood (we have no yard, therefore no compost heap). But, as you say, it’s best to avoid the excess food in the first place.
    Thanks for this thought provoking post.

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  6. It’s so sad to see how much food goes to waste – both here in the UK, as well as the US 😦
    I was watching a documentary the other day, and the amount of good food that’s wasted, just because it’s not perfect, appalled me!
    Ironically, a friend came over the other week, to help me sort out my cupboards, as I’ve been ill for some time, and hubby hadn’t been keeping up with the way I did stock rotation, to make sure there was no waste.
    My cupboards had become a mad jumble of stuff stored at the back that I hadn’t seen in some time.
    As we were sorting them all, I became so angry with myself at the waste I found – many of the packets and tins were from 2014!
    Because of that, I’ve now sorted all my food cupboards, so that I can see everything in them at a glance, and I won’t buy replacements for anything now until the package or tin is empty.
    It makes me feel a bit better about things, and I’m determined never to get to that point again!
    My friend, after seeing my cupboards, went home to sort out hers, and found the self-same thing, so we remind each other now, not to overstck on food 🙂

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  7. […] these loaves of bread, can you take them? We don’t want them to go to waste!” I dislike food waste, but I also don’t eat a lot of plain, white sandwich bread. We took it home, but I worried […]

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