This piece is an outside contribution from Junior Jen Semler. Jen is a Philosophy and Public Policy double-major studying abroad at Oxford University.
“I’m not just full—I’m American full.”
We laughed as we leaned back in our chairs, stuffed from the hamburgers and milkshakes we had hurriedly devoured. For the first time since arriving in the UK, a single meal had left us so full that we Americans couldn’t consider taking another bite.
While walking back to our dorm through the streets of Oxford, we complained that, compared to the US, portion sizes were unreasonably small and meals were overpriced. Long gone were the days of taking leftovers home.
Later that night, I started to think about our conversation: is this societal difference really a bad thing? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken leftovers back only to throw them out a few days later when they start to smell weird. Alternatively, I simply leave the restaurant (or West Union) with my half-eaten dish on the table, knowing I won’t finish it at home. I am consciously wasting food. Yet I justify my actions by saying it’s not my fault that restaurants serve huge dishes and provide no smaller options. As long as I pay for the meal, who cares how much I eat?
Estimates of food waste in the US range from 30-50 percent, meaning that almost half of all produce is sent to landfills. This is a complex issue, and there are many factors that contribute to our wasteful food system. Part of the explanation is economic: food is wasted in the US because it is often subsidized by the government and is generally pretty cheap. The low price of food gives consumers a greater incentive to discard unwanted food and replace it with newer produce.
But, as my experiences in the UK have made clear, part of the problem of food waste is cultural. We, as Americans, have created an irrational stigma against “bad-looking” fruits and vegetables that are perfectly safe to eat. As a result, retailers and producers have begun to throw away crops before they reach the market. Beyond this norm, we’ve also created a habit of purchasing food that we don’t end up eating. We throw away food before it has gone bad. And we do it all because these actions don’t feel like a big deal. When food is so cheap and plentiful, wasting it can quickly become a way of life.
The question ultimately becomes: “Why should we care?” The answer is threefold.
First, there is a normative argument. We should care about reducing our food waste because there are a lot of people in the world who could benefit from our excess food—and these needy populations are often much closer than we assume. If we could figure out how to properly allocate our uneaten food, our potential waste would be distributed to those in need rather than sent to rot in a landfill.
Second, there is an economic argument. At the societal level, food companies and restaurants can save money by reducing food waste. At the individual level, people and families can save money by purchasing less food.
Third, there is an environmental argument. Food left in landfills contributes to the accumulation of atmospheric methane, a particularly harmful greenhouse gas. Moreover, we waste water and energy in transporting and removing discarded food. These resources could be put to better use, but instead contribute negatively to the environment.
At this point, we probably all agree that food waste is bad. But the problem remains of what we can do as individuals, particularly as Duke students, to help. Our meal plans restrict what, where, and when we can eat, making us feel largely powerless over our food decisions.
But there are a few steps we can take. For those of us who buy groceries, we can be more intentional—only buying things we will realistically eat before they perish, keeping track of what we throw out, and learning from our inevitable miscalculations. We can also make a more concerted effort to bring home and actually eat our leftovers—whether that’s uneaten pasta from West Union or free pizza at a club meeting. With our excess food points, we can donate food to organizations in the Durham community. And of course, the most obvious answer: we can all study abroad in a country with expensive food and small portions.