Food, Waste, and Energy

March 5, 2012

By Matt Palmer

Today’s post is about food waste. Yesterday, I went with my family to a local well-known restaurant. Although, a chain restaurant, they serve good high quality food – not fast food. We have gone there for years.

So we sat down and ordered our lunch. I ordered a soup and salad combo, but the waitress confused the order, and instead brought me a large soup, and a side salad, which was fine. Just getting over a cold, the soup was what I really wanted. All was good until she brought a plate of bread. First of all, I did not want the bread, we have cut out gluten from our diet, but the piece of bread was big enough for the table. Our friend who was with us had ordered the same soup, and got the same plate of bread.

The bread was about six inches by eight inches, and three inches thick. I told the waitress that I had not ordered the bread, and would not eat it. “It comes with the soup.” she replied. “If I take it back it will go in the garbage.”

This was the kicker, “it will go in the garbage.” Now portion size is a whole other issue in restaurants, but the amount of food that gets wasted every day in North America particularly, but around the world, would shock all of us. If we extrapolate that to consider how much energy gets wasted in the production, and distribution of that food, we can begin to see ways where there are many areas where even modest changes could positively impact our environment.

One of my nieces works at a local organic supermarket. She commented on how much produce goes to waste every day. At a time when many people in the world go hungry, or are undernourished, we only need to step back and analyze the system to consider that we have an abundance of food, and lots of it gets wasted every day.

I am not suggesting that the solutions are easy. Part of our food system is built upon access to fresh fruits and vegetables year round, so that we can walk into a grocery store at 4 in the morning and buy strawberries from Chile. I love strawberries, and eat them year round, so I am complicit in this system. I do not however buy them at four in the morning.

I worked in restaurants for years while I was going to high school and university. I saw first hand how much food gets wasted. We have an obesity epidemic in North America, and it is not out of line to talk about portion size. What would the unintended consequences be of reducing portion sizes in restaurants? Some people have high metabolisms and can eat a lot and not be obese, but most of us do not fit in that category. When I grew up we were expected to eat everything on the plate.

Healthy eating across society would have many benefits that would directly impact the energy system. This is not about passing judgment on people, but rather suggesting that educating all of us of the benefits of healthy eating, and how those benefits would expand to other areas of our economy and environment.

How do we prevent farmers from shipping food that is going bad or gone bad, or infested with bugs, with the hopes that they will get paid for it because someone at the receiving end does not care? The transportation costs alone are significant. Is there a way to shift the system to cut down on waste, so that instead of food being wasted, it could be shifted to the hungry? Or if the crop is going bad, give the farmer some benefit for composting it rather than shipping it?

There is likely a way to make a profit by creating these efficiencies and reducing waste. Certainly, our landfills would benefit, as I would guess little of this food gets composted. As we look at the bigger picture of energy, there are many sub-issues that can be addressed and attacked.

We live in a world of abundance in so many ways, but sometimes it takes looking at an issue from a completely unexpected angle to see the abundance. As we shift to a systems thinking approach to energy, seemingly unlikely areas will be discovered that can have major impact on our overall energy needs.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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One Response to Food, Waste, and Energy

  1. renxkyoko says:

    Thank you for walking the talk.

    We’ve been brought up ” to finish the food on the plate. There are millions of children starving. ” That’s my family’s mantra. We are immigrants from the Philippines, a country where fresh water is scarce. ( which is ironic because the Philippines is surrounded by water, a country made up of 7,000 islands ) The first thing that my parents ( and older siblings ) noticed on our first day here in the US ( in 1996 ) was how people wasted so much water watering their lawns, washing their cars, etc. Thank goodness, my family has not changed out ” conservation” habits.

    Greetings from California. May your tribe increase.

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