John Oliver likes conflict. More specifically, John Oliver likes raving about conflict with surprisingly intellectual arguments and just enough humor to keep things interesting.
Even though his reputation is what it is, I was still pretty floored when Oliver passed along some nuggets of knowledge about food waste that I had never heard before. And for the record, I’ve done my research. Heck, I’ve even studied the process of making humanure (more crudely known as composting human crap) in the name of being educated about the world’s waste problems.
So, yeah, Oliver had some pretty compelling stuff to say.
Obviously food waste is a problem, but were you aware of how large the problem actually is? It’s roughly 730 football stadiums large. Yup: We could fill 730 stadiums every year with food that we just don’t use. It’s a crime.
But how does something like this happen? How do we, as a country that’s home to many people who don’t have reliable access to food, not eat nearly one third of what we produce?
Overstocking Grocery Stores
Grocery stores, and even farmers’ markets, want to present their products in a way that will encourage the most sales. It totally makes sense, so we can’t really blame them.
The blame should really fall on us consumers who insist on having things look like they belong in a magazine.
Oliver features a clip of a farmer explaining how one last bunch of chard would never be sold in the final hour of a farmers’ market, whereas if he had 30 bunches displayed, he would probably sell 25 of them. Wait, what?
Like Oliver points out, we tend to think that the “last one” is usually not a good one, or a damaged one or a just plain bad one. Instead of taking the time to look something over, consumers breeze past grocery items that seem like they were left behind and stores pile unnecessary amounts of food on their shelves to make their goods appealing.
This is a pretty simple form of waste caused by consumers’ lack of willingness to purchase products that aren’t arranged in bountiful rows. And chances are, that last bunch of chard is completely and totally fine, which just makes the whole problem worse.
Enforcing Aesthetic Standards
Another reason why so much of our edible food is wasted is because it’s ugly, plain and simple. Whatever you may say about it being what’s on the inside that counts won’t convince the USDA, which has strict grading standards for the aesthetics of food.
There are actually people that judge the way peaches look. This is a job. But I digress.
Tons and tons of completely edible fruits and veggies never make it to consumers simply because they aren’t visually appealing. An odd-shaped pear is essentially doomed to be thrown on the ground during a harvest because the farmer knows that no one will probably want to buy it.
This is what’s keeping good food from hungry mouths? Our country has become so image-obsessed that even the produce aisle falls under our scrutiny?
Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, guys. Embrace ugly fruit. We should make bumper stickers.
Following Expiration Dates
Bet ya didn’t know that expiration dates and sell-by dates mean next to nothing. As someone who has flipped out over eating a cup of yogurt I realized was a week past its so-called expiration, this concept is new to me.
So the dates aren’t put there because of food safety requirements?
As Emily Broad Leib (the Director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic) shares in a clip on the show, these dates aren’t about our health or protection– they’re the manufacturer’s best guess as to how long food items will stay fresh. Adding these kinds of dates to food products isn’t even legally required.
Oliver points out that 91% of people have thrown something out past its expiration date for fear that it would not be safe to consume. But since expiration dates are not actually the end-all-be-all determiners of food safety that we think they are, that means we trash SO. MUCH. FOOD. that’s probably completely edible.
Failing to Incentivize Donations
If all this edible food is landing in dumpsters and being dumped into landfills, why is donating it only kind of an option? Imagine how epic it would be to give 730 football stadiums worth of food to the hungry across the country.
The truth is, companies and grocery stores are scared of donating unused food. Note that I said scared, not stingy. For some, it’s probably one of those “I wish I could, but I can’t, so I won’t” situations.
The bottom line is that people avoid donating leftover food products because they fear being sued for threatening someone’s safety with possible low quality or rancid food. But as Oliver so keenly points out, this fear is absolutely groundless. Not only are companies protected by the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, but there has also never been a case recorded in which someone was sued for donating food.
But even after jumping through the hoop of possibly being sued for an act of service, donating may still not even be worth it for a company. It’s usually cheaper to throw food away than it is to have it organized and donated and that is just plain despicable.
Because our government struggles to really incentivize food donations for smaller companies, smaller companies don’t donate because it just doesn’t make economic sense for them to do so. And so our food waste grows and grows and grows.
So there are basically three takeaways here:
1. John Oliver knows what’s up with food waste.
2. We have a major national food waste problem that our generation needs to tackle.
3. Mom, you really can learn something from watching TV, so there.
Check out the full-length video here: