Can the Cost of Waste be Overstated?
NFESH’s selection of an article entitled “Are Measures of Food Waste Overstated?” as the lead one in the “In the News” section of our What A Waste® newsletter might be viewed by some as undercutting our goals of raising awareness about the prevalence of food waste and wasted food in this country – and specifically in congregate senior nutrition programs — and undermining our efforts to reduce hunger by eliminating or repurposing what’s being wasted. We certainly disagree. In fact, we regard drawing attention to that article as an opportunity to answer the fundamental question the authors posed there and to showcase again what NFESH and congregate meal programs across the country have learned through What A Waste®. What A Waste® is about more than just learning, of course. Its primary purpose is to put that knowledge to work to improve program operations and feed more seniors who need nutrition services with current resources by curtailing, and eventually eliminating, wasted food.
Did we say “wasted food” and not “food waste”? Yes, we did – and deliberately. So let’s begin with definitions. Definitions, after all, are at the heart of the question (and the accompanying supposition) that the researchers posed about overstated food waste. In addition to disagreeing with many of the “standard” definitions of food waste, they make the interesting point that there may be too many competing meanings for that term. It is hard to disagree with their observation, particularly when two agencies of the federal government – the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency – define the term in dissimilar ways; and that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg where food waste is concerned.
We at NFESH have devised our own meaning of food waste in the context of What A Waste® and senior nutrition programs. It is most easily understood as food that once was safe and appropriate for human consumption but no longer is. Included in this category are foods that have spoiled, been mishandled, or been served to others and then been discarded and sent to landfills. It is that final resting place that ultimately determines a food item’s classification as waste. We say that because the food we described above can still be used in productive ways, like feeding animals or being transformed into compost for use in vegetable gardens. In both those cases, it can contribute positively to anti-hunger efforts. Many What A Waste projects have benefitted from composting waste and then using it to create vegetable gardens.
But it is on wasted food that we would really like to focus – and that is because we are convinced that it is an undervalued and often ignored resource that has the potential of enabling senior nutrition programs in community after community across this country to make real and measurable progress in reducing the threat of hunger among seniors in those communities. So, then, what is wasted food? Simply put, it is food that has been ordered and/or prepared but not served. That includes full meals as well as the individual components of those meals that are perfectly safe and healthy for seniors to eat but that never get used as such. Instead they either go to landfill or are transformed into compost. In other words, their intrinsic value as food that could be used to, yes, feed those in need is…wasted.
Precisely how much wasted food is generated annually by this nation’s senior nutrition programs is uncertain. But two things are clear. (1) Wasted food can and should be recognized as an underutilized resource and (2) then repurposed in such a way that it can be used to provide nutritious meals to seniors in need.
We all know that familiar saying: “Waste not, want not.” And the wisdom of that certainly cannot be overstated.