The Bad Taste of Food Waste

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 (Richard Swerdlow)

My friend Jack and I went to a restaurant recently. He's 87 and remembers the Depression. "I was raised to never waste food," he said, finishing every bite.

His comment made me think of yesterday's dinner. Opening the fridge to see what I could come up with -- slim pickings, leftover chicken -- I sniffed it, tossed it in the compost, and ordered take-out.

But my little act of wasting leftovers illustrates a big problem. Thirty to forty percent of the food supply is wasted, according to a United Nations study. Americans throw away 35 million tons of food annually. A typical family of four tosses almost $1,500 worth of still-edible food each year. Food is, in fact, our largest single source of garbage.

And in such a hungry world, this waste is shocking. The UN estimates almost 800 million people - one of every nine people on Earth -- don't have sufficient food. More than three million children under five starve to death every year. Worldwide, about 15 people die of starvation every minute.

Grim statistics such as these can be found at the World Expo in Milan this summer, at the United Nations "Zero Hunger Challenge," where 140 countries are looking for solutions to this human tragedy. Scientists say the world now produces enough food to feed its entire population, so why are millions starving?


Here in the Bay Area, excellent food is part of everyday life. But after these statistics, I'm not taking our abundance for granted any more. I never thought about how much food I waste. But now I buy less so it won't spoil before I eat it, try to get through leftovers, bring half-eaten restaurant dinners for tomorrow's lunch.

Global starvation is complicated, involving politics, economics, even weather, and I can't solve world hunger in my kitchen. But I can do my own small part through reducing waste. Because, in a world where millions dream of having enough to eat, wasting food should leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.