When it comes to social justice, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves weighed down by the utter enormity of humanity’s struggles. We often tell ourselves that it’s just too much—that we don’t have the time or resources to make a substantial difference. Whether or not that’s really true, there is one easy way to make an impact that often goes unnoticed.
And it all starts with finishing your vegetables.
Believe it or not, food waste has become a major problem not just in America, but around the world. On average, Americans throw out 40% of their food. To put things in perspective, that’s nearly 40 million tons every year—about $400 a year per person. It’s also enough to satisfy hunger for the one billion malnourished people living in the world today. As Pope Francis pointed out a little more than a year ago, “Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of the poor and the hungry.”
If that doesn’t sound serious enough, just think about everything that goes into bringing that food to the supermarket and to your plate. The water used to irrigate the food that people inevitably waste would be enough to satisfy the domestic needs of over 9 billion people. (That’s more than we have on the planet right now, if you weren’t sure.) And then there’s this—10% of our greenhouse emissions comes from growing food that is never eaten. If we planted trees on the land used to grow eventually wasted food, it would offset a theoretical 100% maximum of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion. On top of this, the US spends $1 billion a year just to dispose of food waste. So not only is wasting food an affront to those who desperately need it—it’s an affront to our planet and our economy.
You might be thinking, “Well I’m a college student. I can’t really afford to waste any food. I’m on a budget here.” To which I full-heartedly agree. Yet that does nothing to dispel the fact that among the biggest wasters of food are young adults ages 18 to 24. Oops?
Not all of it is the consumer’s fault, however. The food industry—meaning everyone from restaurants and small businesses to those actually growing and preparing our food—has a huge hand in throwing away shocking amounts of food. In the US, UK, and Europe, we have anywhere from three to four times as much food as is needed for our populations, half of which is wasted before it even reaches our plates. An estimated 20 to 40% of fruit and vegetables are rejected before making it to the supermarket, simply because its cosmetic appearance is not quite up to standard. Of course, this is partially the consumer’s fault for being picky about fruits and vegetables that don’t look a certain way and yet are perfectly fine to eat.
So while there isn’t a whole lot that can be done about the food industry’s blatant apathy towards this issue, there is something you personally can do. Take care to shop wisely, purchasing only what you fully intend to eat. If you cook more than you can eat, get in the habit of eating leftovers. Oftentimes, food is mistakenly thrown out due to confusion over expiration dates. According to a study conducted last year, more than 90% of Americans throw out food prematurely, and 40% of the U.S. food supply is thrown out for this reason. (Hint: your food doesn’t spoil on the exact date printed. Most of the time it’s not even close.)
In closing, I’m not going to say you’re contributing to the genocide of nearly a billion people by not finishing your dinner—but every little bit counts, and it’s a fine line. I think all of us can push ourselves a little further in ensuring that we aren’t wasteful, and we can definitely make the world a better place in the process.