Portion Size and Food Waste: A Growing Problem

Individually we are what we eat. Socially we are what we waste. We can apply Garrett Hardin's theory of the Tragedy of the Commons to this; individually we consider that our food choices benefit us alone, but the social cost of any waste is shared by everyone so we care about it less. However, if unchecked these negative externalities could lead to our demise.

When I moved to America from England, I was delighted by the beautiful, unblemished fruits and vegetables, and the huge portion sizes. Sandwiches particularly intrigued me. I imagined one would need jaws like a snake in order to open one's mouth sufficiently widely to take a bite from this exciting enormity.

I must admit that these generous portions excited me. But even then there were hints that all was not necessarily well in this beautiful food emporium of a country. I noticed how many people were seriously overweight. I also dined one night at a friend's house, who, when the meal was over, fed the very ample remains down the garbage disposal unit, rather than storing them in the refrigerator. What is worse; over-indulging with huge portion sizes? Or throwing away perfectly fresh, nutritious food? They are both a different way of wasting food. And the diminishing returns, exemplified through expanded waist lines and discarded foods are a tragedy.

There is much concern that now that our global population has climbed over seven billion, there is insufficient food to feed everyone. This is a justification for creating genetically modified food, and for factory farms using the Taylor model of assembly lines to maximize efficiency, only in this case it is sentient beings and not metal parts in the factory. Whereas both of these methods are praise-worthy for increasing the food supply, some dispute the view that we are running out of food, and say it's more a problem of distribution than of supply. People in inaccessible rural locations, or urban food deserts, have very poor access to fresh food, and means of distribution need to be improved to help alleviate this situation. But our problem of insufficient food is also clearly a matter of not wasting food in the first place. There is a finite amount of food in the pot; what we waste could have been distributed to others.

There are many stages at which food can be wasted; from fruits and vegetables left to rot in the fields possibly because they are bruised or blemished, to food wasted in supermarkets, especially because of confusion about "sell by" and "best by" dates, which leads many consumers not to select anything that seems too old, to food wasted at home. The American suburban lifestyle encourages us to drive to the supermarket, wheel an enormous cart down aisles of foods designed to tempt us by their bright colors, their labels claiming a variety of health benefits, their price incentives if we buy in bulk, and come away with bags upon bags of groceries as we stock up for a week for ourselves and our family. Inevitably some food gradually gets pushed to the back of the refrigerator, and when we later discover it, it is often too old and possibly moldy.

Some Strategies to Overcome Food Waste:
Portion control: When we eat good quality food, and slow down and devote our attention to it, we often find we don't need to eat quite so much. Maybe our large consumption is because we don't focus on our food, distracted as we may be by electronic devices or TV or eating on the run, so we eat large amounts of food as a way to satisfy ourselves. Sitting down to a nice meal could surely be a way in which not only might we eat more appreciatively, but also we might waste less.

Education: We need to educate the public, starting with children, about the sanctity of food. So many children think food originates in the supermarket, vacuum packed, or in colorful boxes, just waiting to be plucked off the shelf. All of us should develop a true respect for food; we should appreciate the richness of the soil, the glory of the sunshine and the clarity of the water that nourishes the crop. Farmers' markets are springing up in more communities, and it is a great way to shop for fresh local food, and learn a little from the farmers, too.

Abolish Trays in Cafeterias: Trays enable us to carry many heaped plates of food. Without a tray we are less likely to get up and get more food. Rutgers, where I teach, abolished trays in their cafeterias a few years ago, and the overall reaction has been very positive and I see much less food wasted.

Financial Consequences: Just as there are fines for industries which pollute, so too should we pay towards the costs of wasted food.

Find Uses for Wasted Food: Feed any discarded food to animals with the appropriate digestive system, or use it as an energy source.


This post is part of our "Reclaim" initiative, which showcases solutions to the issue of food waste and engages our readers to take action. You can find all the posts in this initiative, as well as feature pieces, investigative stories and video, here. Follow the initiative on Twitter at #Reclaim. And if you'd like to add your own thoughts to our series, sign up here for a HuffPost blog account.  

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