Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Ugly Food
distributed 3/20/15 - ©2015

Those of us who care about creation have figured out that energy waste and inefficiency are wrong. A gas-guzzler car, an un-insulated house, a computer left on 24/7, an old furnace that's only uses 60% of the heat generated -- those are moral issues because they harm the whole community through depleted resources and pollution.

We need to learn the same lessons about food.

A posting on Facebook led me into a web of reporting on food waste that opened my eyes to the scale, complexity, and moral importance of this agricultural/ economic/ household inefficiency. Fortunately, there are positive trends and helpful actions where we can all be engaged.

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The starting point to my research was a news story about a Canadian grocery chain that is just starting to sell "ugly fruits and vegetables." The less-pretty produce will cost 30% less than the photogenic counterparts. The Canadian initiative comes a year after a French supermarket chain launched a beautifully creative ad campaign featuring five "inglorious" fruits and vegetables, to great commercial success. (There's a nice little video on the French initiative.)

The discounted price for ugly food is helpful for "food insecure" households who can't afford high-priced veggies, and there are many other positives. There also is a psychological and spiritual plus, which I haven't seen in my reading. Produce in a rich variety of shapes -- multi-pronged carrots, and lumpy potatoes -- remind us that food actually grows in nature. Spuds and apples aren't factory-produced to identical specifications.

At various steps in the food production process, vast quantities of perfectly good food is left in the field or discarded because it does not meet "ridiculously strict" cosmetic or marketing standards. Other losses are found in processing and packaging methods, at restaurants, and in the way food is marketed at retail. (Up to 1/7 of perishables delivered to supermarkets is thrown away). Lots of useable food is discarded by households.

Details on those statistics, and a wealth of information and recommendations, are found in a 2012 report from the NRDC, "Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill". At 20+ pages, it is a compelling document that covers a lot of ground in a very readable way. The report's executive summary spells out the scope of the issues, and shows the interconnection with environmental and justice issues.

Getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land. Moreover, almost all of that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where organic matter accounts for 16 percent of U.S. methane emissions. Nutrition is also lost in the mix -- food saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables. Given all the resources demanded for food production, it is critical to make sure that the least amount possible is needlessly squandered on its journey to our plates.

Such an enormous waste of money, nutrition and environmental resources is neither necessary nor essential. Morally and practically, our culture needs to cut way back on this waste. ("The average American consumer discards 10 times as much [food] as the average Southeast Asian.")

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What are some of the things that can be done to cut food waste? (The NRDC report has many more suggestions, and more extensive details.)

  • When we're grocery shopping, we can buy the "inglorious" produce, and not insist on the pretty stuff. That's easier to do at farmer's markets (which have many positives!) than at the supermarket chains, where bananas turning brown are the most common form of "imperfect" produce. Urge your grocer to provide an "ugly food" option.

  • One big factor in food waste is a lack of clarity and education about dates on food labels. Sell by, best before, use by, and other terms are generally unregulated and a source of confusion. Families throw out food prematurely when they don't understand the label. Uniform standards and less confusing options can be developed through industry cooperation or legislation.

    Your congregation can provide helpful advice to help your community about these labels. "Sell by" is guidance for the store, and food is fine to eat long after that. "Best by" is a suggestion about peak food taste and quality, not safety. (Note: this distinction is very important for food banks that may handle lots of food past these label dates!)

  • Laws can be changed, tax incentives adjusted, and social service agencies strengthened to facilitate "food recovery" that distributes wholesome food to the poor and hungry, instead of discarding it. Food recovery can range from gleaning in fields to donations of excess from restaurants and caterers, and the diversion of less-marketable items from stores.

  • More responsible production of some foods would cut waste of several kinds. Food activist Tristram Stuart points out the foolish changes in how hogs are fed. "Pigs were originally domesticated for the sole purpose of recycling human food waste back into food, a process that has worked for thousands of years." These days, many countries "import millions of tons of soy from South America to feed pigs—causing massive deforestation throughout the Amazon."

    Stuart's initiative in the UK calls for a strongly regulated system that would allow pigs to be safely fed food waste once again. The campaign has inspired supermarkets to send waste that is legal for livestock, such as bread, to farms rather than landfills. "Feeding food waste to pigs saves 20 times more carbon than the next-best recycling method," he says. Similar projects in the US would cut waste, and probably support livestock operations that are more local, more humane, and more sustainable.

The massive waste of food is a sin against creation. Religious communities can provide local leadership -- in education, in legislation, and in distribution -- to cut waste and raise awareness.

How will your congregation get involved?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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