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Wasting an afternoon at Harvard

While enrolled at THINK Global School, students are encouraged to be introspective during the course of their studies and travels. When the students document these thoughts, we are often delighted with the results. In the following critique written after attending a conservation lecture at Harvard University, 11th grade student Maya M. provides her thoughts on the excess of food waste in developed countries, and provides her take on what we can do to remedy the situation.

 


 

MY PHONE IS FULL OF NOTES. Or, more correctly, I’ve written a non-fiction novel in my phone’s notes. Waste management is an extensive issue, you see. It is not as simple as eating what is on your plate, and, therefore, minimizing the amount of food that goes into the trash. Wow, what a misunderstanding that is!

I thought it was pretty simple for a long time. Growing up with the standard Swedish child-upbringing sentence, “Eat up what is on your plate and think about the children in Africa that have no food.” To me, waste was about ethics. To me, it was a sign of appreciation and gratitude for what I had, and a gesture of non-arrogance.

But waste is so much more than leaving the plate ready for the dishwasher. It is a problem that runs through the entire producer-to-consumer chain of agricultural goods. It is an economical issue, a social issue, a marketing issue and a misinformation issue. This is what the author of American Wasteland Jonathan Bloom, Food and Agriculture scientist Dana Gunders, Harvard professor José Alvarez and former president of Trader Joes Doug Rauch talked to an assembly of Harvard (and a handful of TGS) students about tonight.

25% of household bought food is wasted. It is not only because of failed attempts to estimate pasta portions, but oversized bags of food and misleading expiration labels. As we know, they are not true. The super-sized containers are impossible to finish, and much goes into the bin. And from there, it is nothing anymore. To many people, trash-food never existed, and this is a view we have to change. We can’t see how much of the food we buy is thrown out because it is in a closed container, mixed with plastic and paper garbage.

We can afford it, so we buy it. It makes perfect sense from an economic perspective. If you can afford it, and you get more, why not buy it? The opportunity cost of a few cents for an extra portion seems like a speck in the universe, but think about the extra labor that went into that extra portion. All the water, soil, fertilizer. Is it only worth a few cents? Also, people seem to forget that to make saved food serve the purpose, it has to be eaten to. I’m not even going to elaborate on the expiration dates; I am sick of that debate. It is stupid. Bam. There it goes. We don’t smell or look at the food anymore. Our elaborated sense of knowing what is good and bad is pushed aside to listen to some black numbers on a sticker. And these are not even written by the farmers themselves but by the companies selling the product. How much sense does that make on a scale? So why do we do this? Why do we throw food away? Because a label tells us to? Because we are scared. Every day we are fed information that unconsciously makes us scared of food. Our society is overly clean, by reading headlines about death caused by salmonella and E-coli, which are related to food, we take “precautions”. But do you want to know a secret? You won’t get salmonella or E-coli if you eat something past its expiration date. These have nothing in common.

Furthermore, we as consumers have become perfectionists, demanding perfectly manicured foods. A scar on a pear makes it unsellable, and a misshapen ravioli equals one less buyer for that company. This is detrimental in the extreme competition all companies face today. We are creating big losses in the production stages of food, only because we want it to look perfect. Today, some farmers only sell about 10% of their harvest because that is the only part that is top quality and that carries their brand’s flag high in the market. The other 90% of completely fine food generates less money and is, therefore, a waste of time. And on the game-like market of agriculture, entire fields of crops can be thrown away because of the price level at the time. If the price doesn’t cover the costs of harvesting, why harvest? Tonnes and tonnes of perfectly edible food are dismissed like this every year. Just because of the perfectionism of the consumers. Only a small fraction of food that goes to waste is thrown in our kitchen bins. Most is sifted out before it even reaches the shelves of your local grocery store. And when fresh foods like fruit reach the shelves, we want the display to be big and beautiful. Or let me correct myself, the company that sells the fruit and the grocery store wants the display to be big and beautiful. Who hasn’t seen a giant pyramid of perfectly shiny red-delicious apples and bought some just because of how good they look? This is the problem of marketing. Companies sell more by making something desirable. But what happens to the apples in the bottom of that pyramid? They get bruised, of course, and are thrown away because they can no longer meet our standards. Isn’t that a very contradicting chain of events? Companies market their product as something that meets our perfectionist standards, sell half, and the rest had to take one for the team.

But what can we do? We have to show that there is a demand for imperfect products. Go to the local grocery store and ask for a day-old loaf of bread, or a bag of bruised apples. Make an apple pie, apple sauce, croutons or breadcrumbs (you have no idea what they might put in the pre-made stuff.) It is healthier, inexpensive, and that way you show you care. By creating a market for these foods, we can create a world where most food at least reaches the consumer and 40% isn’t thrown away.

If you want to trash something, trash the idea that fighting for the environment is finishing everything on your plate even if you are stuffed. Just don’t make more food than you need, and eat what is left over instead of making another meal. It is as simple as that.

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Ready to embark on the educational journey of a lifetime?

A passion for travel. A strong academic record. And the desire to improve the world as you experience it. If this sounds like you, you just might be our ideal candidate! Start your application with a five-minute inquiry form - you never know where you might end up.

It all starts here.

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