photo of food

Food Waste and the Food Bank Battle

We all do it. The day the milk goes “bad” according to a “best by” label it goes down the drain and the plastic container goes in the recycle bin. It’s understandable; we have been raised to believe that label on our green beans and spinach, our canned corn and pumpkin. Yet the reality is that none of those labels are regulated or even accurately indicate if a food is safe to consume.

Most foods are still good well past the “expiration date”, even fresh foods. As Ben Mensch, the volunteer coordinator at the Food Bank for Larimer County, puts it “Milk is not going to be fresh at 11:59pm and rotten at 12:01am, it just doesn’t work that way.” The problem with the dates and labeling is that none of it is regulated by the FDA or any other government agency (except for baby formula) for the consumer to actually know what is good or bad for them to consume. These numbers don’t even relate to food freshness, but instead are meant to work as a cataloging system for retailers to know when items were stocked. In May, a bill introduced in Congress has asked for federal regulation of food labeling in an attempt to cut down on food waste and inhibit states from passing bills that limit donations to food banks.

The estimates vary on how much is wasted with this inaccurate labeling system. The NRDC found that around “160 billion pounds of food is trashed in the U.S. every year, making food waste the single largest contributor of solid waste in the nation’s landfills.” That equals to 30-40% of food that is produced. This isn’t just a “waste” problem either; it costs valuable resources in water, farming, transportation and human labor. It is also not just the consumer that lets something sit in the fridge too long; some of the food that is tossed is edible and grocery stores along with food production cause a large amount of the waste.

Food waste is also the result of our learned preference for “perfect produce”. Bruised apples and imperfect carrots are often looked over in preference of ideal food. Ugly food items are often some of the first to get tossed or passed on, even before it makes it to the supermarket. Often farmers and buyers skim through produce to remove such “ugly” fruits and vegetables. Though a solid statistic is hard to find, some farm surveys indicate that anywhere from 5-30% of food is wasted due to its physical appearance. For some crops, that are more prone to defects, such as potatoes there is usually a 30-35% “cull rate” according to a 2015 NPR article.

The “uglies” often end up thrown out, even when they are perfectly edible. Food Banks around the country have been saving “uglies” for years in an attempt to not only feed people in need but also to cut down on food waste nationwide. Food Bank for Larimer County accepts a lot of donated “ugly” food every year which then can be passed on to clients for use in their homes. This also guarantees that people are getting healthy and nutrient rich food to supplement their diet and improve the health of those clients. In Larimer County that is 29,000 Food Share clients a year that can walk away with fresh produce that would have otherwise been thrown out.

While food waste is a national problem, food banks around the country have been a part of the solution for many years and will continue to connect all available food to people in need, while also diverting these foods from landfills. On a side note, Food Bank for Larimer County works with local farmers to compost the foods not distributed through our programs or provides the leftovers to local farmers to use as animal feed. When we all work together, we can ensure everyone has the food they need to succeed and thrive.

To prevent food waste in your own home, try some of these tips:

• Buy ONLY what you know you will eat in a few days, and go to the store more frequently to pick up fresh produce and meat.
• Freeze what you can’t eat in time or buy frozen produce that won’t spoil as quickly.
• Cook at home more frequently and make up items with scraps of food, such as chili, soup, roasts etc.
• Dedicate one night a week as a “leftover night” and eat up what is left of previous meals
• Take lunch with you from what you have left over from the previous meals. It beats a soggy sandwich.
• Compost spoiled food for the garden, or feed to farm animals such as chickens, rabbits, pigs and other creatures (such as hamsters and rats) that don’t mind strawberry tops and wilted lettuce.
• Shop at businesses that donate to local food banks.
• If you garden and have too much produce, think of donating it to us through our Plant it Forward program!