Monday, May 19, 2008

Preventing food waste at all-you-can-eat buffets

Here's what many restaurants in Singapore do at their smorgasbords: diners are charged one flat price to indulge as much as they wish, but at the end of the meal, any uneaten food is weighed, and the diners charged accordingly.

From what I hear, one pays a few dollars for every 100 grams (about a quarter pound) of food left uneaten on their plate.

Could that strategy work in the United States?

The Environmental Impact of Food Waste

A lot of attention's been given to world food shortages and their soaring prices, but what about the question of food waste?

First, how much food do Americans throw out? Bear in mind, much of this is perfectly edible food.

From the New York Times:

"In 1997, in one of the few studies of food waste, the Department of Agriculture estimated that two years before, 96.4 billion pounds of the 356 billion pounds of edible food in the United States was never eaten. (That's 27 percent! - GC) Fresh produce, milk, grain products and sweeteners made up two-thirds of the waste. An update is under way.

"The study didn’t account for the explosion of ready-to-eat foods now available at supermarkets, from rotisserie chickens to sandwiches and soups. What do you think happens to that potato salad and meatloaf at the end of the day?

(For cafeterias, restaurants and supermarkets, it [is] just as easy to toss food that wasn’t sold into trash bins than to worry about somebody getting sick from it. And then filing a lawsuit.)

"A more recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year, which is about 12 percent of the total waste stream. All but about 2 percent of that food waste ends up in landfills; by comparison, 62 percent of yard waste is composted.

"The numbers seem all the more staggering now, given the cost of groceries and the emerging food crisis abroad." (Full article: One Country's Table Scraps, Another Country's Meal.)

And that's just the United States. Together with the food wasted in other developed countries, it's mind-boggling.

In the UK, the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that a third of all the apples sold there were tossed. "Besides apples, households are also dumping 5.1 million potatoes a day, 2.8 million tomatoes, 1.6 million bananas, and 1.2 million oranges. These were not scraps or peelings but whole items in good condition.

WRAP revealed before Christmas that about 6.7 million tonnes of food a year is dumped in bins. This represents a third of all food bought for consumption at home and is worth a total of £8 billion, or an average £400 (USD 780)for every household. (Source)

Back to the NY Times article:

And consider this: the rotting food that ends up in landfills produces methane, a major source of greenhouse gases.

"The federal government tried once before, during the Clinton administration, to get the nation fired up about food waste, but the effort was discontinued by the Bush administration. The secretary of agriculture at the time, Dan Glickman, created a program to encourage food recovery and gleaning, which means collecting leftover crops from farm fields.

"He assigned a member of his staff, Mr. Berg, to oversee the program, and Mr. Berg spent the next several years encouraging farmers, schools, hospitals and companies to donate extra crops and food to feeding charities. A Good Samaritan law was passed by Congress that protected food donors from liability for donating food and groceries, spurring more donations.

“We made a dent,” said Mr. Berg, now at the New York City hunger group. “We reduced waste and increased the amount of people being fed. It wasn’t a panacea, but it helped.”

With the current food crisis, it seems possible that the issue of food waste might have more traction this time around."

Jonathan Bloom, who writes the blog Wasted Food, said he was encouraged by the increasing Web chatter about saving money on food, something that used to be confined to the “frugal mommy blogs.”

“The fundamental thing that I’m fighting against is, ‘why should I care? I paid for it,’ ” Mr. Bloom said. “The rising prices are really an answer to that.”

Sounds like a very good time to resuscitate that food recovery program, doesn't it?

"Of course, eliminating food waste won’t solve the problems of world hunger and greenhouse-gas pollution. But it could make a dent in this country and wouldn’t require a huge amount of effort or money. The Department of Agriculture estimated that recovering just 5 percent of the food that is wasted could feed four million people a day; recovering 25 percent would feed 20 million people."

Here again is that report, One Country's Table Scraps, Another Country's Meal.