March 28, 2023

Show Gratitude by Reducing Waste

Guest Opinion
By Cathye Williams | Nov. 20, 2021

Thanksgiving has long been a time to celebrate abundance. Striving for abundance seemed prudent in a past where stockpiles provided security against times of scarcity.

Today, the abundance we enjoy is more a sign of imbalance than security. Much like climate change brings downpours and floods to some areas while leaving others deathly dry, our current food system is similarly out of whack: In the U.S., we throw away over $400 billion of food annually, yet one in ten adults aren’t getting enough to eat.

Since becoming an empty nester, I’ve begun to think more about food waste. I always knew it was an environmental issue in need of attention, but I didn’t feel too much pressure or personal responsibility when I had kids who were proud members of the “clean plate club.”

These days, however, as I plan meals for one and still toss too many scraps in the compost, my thoughts turn to the truckloads and acres of food growing all over the world. And what about the food that never becomes scraps — that never even makes it to the table? I walk grocery aisles where the dizzying variety of choices and façade of perfect-looking food makes me woozy. It seems we’ve gotten to a point where enough is not enough until it’s too much.

We look at countries with bread lines and empty grocery shelves as cautionary tales, while well-stocked American stores and pantries are seen as benchmarks of success, the way we show that we nourish and care for our families. In reality, these full shelves hide a sadder truth, and one that could well be viewed as America’s cautionary tale. Much of the food we buy is devoid of nourishment, and the amount that goes to waste indicates a lack of care — for ourselves, our communities, and the Earth. 

Any smart businessperson knows that cutting out waste is good for their bottom line — a way to keep their operation healthy. Likewise, addressing the problem of food waste is good for humanity’s bottom line — a way to keep people and the planet healthy. So how is the business of feeding ourselves faring? Well, right now our bottom line is not looking that great.

Over 40 percent of all food in the U.S. goes unsold or uneaten, according to the USDA.  This also contributes to climate change. When we waste food, we also waste the energy it took to grow, transport, and refrigerate it. However, the biggest contribution that food makes to global warming is when we throw it into landfills, where it decomposes and produces methane.

In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is now the largest single input by weight in U.S. landfills and incinerators and accounts for 4 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That's more than the U.S. airline industry.

The good news is that reducing food waste isn’t all that expensive or complex. We can each make a difference in our kitchens by planning a little, utilizing leftovers, and composting waste. Beyond the kitchen table, we can support organizations like Food Rescue, which is making a huge difference here in northwest Lower Michigan, saving 1.8 million pounds of food from ending up in our landfills each year and distributing it to local food pantries.

Other opportunities might include a city-sponsored compost program, where green goals would be met by reducing methane emissions from landfills, or school-based initiatives to measure and reduce waste. Imagine students helping with the design and implementation of those programs and getting hands-on lessons in economics, civics, science, and math!

Some of these ideas are already being implemented, voluntarily, by smart individuals, businesses, and communities who see the economic, environmental, and social benefits of preventing loss and reducing waste.

The Pew Research Center found that 80 percent of Americans believe food waste is a critical issue. But large-scale efforts will still likely require public policy to get them off the ground. Advocating for this with our elected officials and thinking about who will support solutions at the ballot box are other ways to help.

We can also learn (and tell others) about legislative efforts like the Zero Food Waste Act (HR 4444/S 2389), which would provide grants and other supports for locally led programs. The World Wildlife Foundation provides great information on the act, and offers an online form you can use to contact members of Congress. Programs that would be catalyzed by this bill are projected to significantly reduce landfill inputs and greenhouse gases, deliver safe edible food, and create jobs. 

You might also give thanks for supporting an effort that lets you leave that red or blue hat at home because reducing food waste checks boxes on both sides of the aisle. Whether you consider yourself Democrat, Republican, conservative, progressive, or none of the above, reducing food waste for a healthy community and a healthy bottom line is something we can all get behind.

Cathye Williams serves as a volunteer and media liaison for the Grand Traverse area chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, She writes from Benzie County. Special thanks to Bob Nichols for contributing to the research and writing for this piece. Nichols lives in Traverse City, where he advocates for a peaceful, just and sustainable world with Veterans for Peace and Citizens Climate Lobby.


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