This sermon, “Food and Our World, was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on January 15, 2017. It is published here with permission from the writers, with all rights reserved.
By Rob Rogan with Karen Gotschall
I have spent the better part of my adult life working in the food industry. I have seen about every step between farm and grocery store and want to take a few minutes to talk about the issues as it relates to all of us here. But I will make the disclaimer that I am speaking for me today and nothing I say represents any statement from the company I work for.
However, working for a large food company will obviously provide a certain view of the food supply chain. Like it or not, large companies have a bad reputation in our modern world and for the most parts consumers want a local personal connection with their products. That said, large companies still handle the bulk of the food we consume in this society so what they do still has enormous implications on the food in our world.
I will cover a couple topics today, but the one I want to spend the greatest amount of time on is waste.
Reducing food waste
We have heard a lot of talk about the need for food in this world, so let’s talk lay it out there to start. Depending on which study you want to believe somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of all food grown in the world ends up thrown away as waste. Yet more than 10 percent of the population is malnourished.
Just think about that for a second.
What this means is that we live in a world with about 7.5 billion people. We produce enough food to feed about 12 billion people. Yet we only manage to effectively feed about 6.8 billion people.
That is surely oversimplifying a complex issue, but just think about that for a moment.
This food waste has points all along the supply chain, including many places you can’t control, but in America you have the greatest opportunity to reduce waste. If you look at the graph here you see many points of waste along the way from farm to table, but the greatest responsibility lies with us, the end user or consumer at the bottom of the graph. The production loss from fruits and vegetables is the other outlier at the top, but we will talk about that in a bit.
Now this isn’t as true in many developing countries, where inadequate supply chains, lack of refrigeration, and poor storage solution end up with much higher losses up in the food chain—but this isn’t the case here.
Furthermore, I would submit that what this graph is calling “waste” in areas such as processing are actually much better to tolerate because almost everything that is waste in the food industry usually goes to two streams: “Certa” or “Offal.” Certa and offal are industry names for taking either dry or wet waste and sending it out to be feed for farm animals. The amount of food that is actually put to a landfill from many food manufacturing sites is very tiny,
The food industry faces challenges to find solutions to complex issues. Are you aware of how much milk it takes to make a single serving Greek yogurt? Are you aware that to make the Greek yogurt everyone loves they have to strain the protein out of milk and for every gallon of Greek yogurt, about 3 gallons of waste liquid are made. But General Mills and Chiobani still recycle that waste onto crops or into a bio generator to make electricity.
What we can do to help
As consumers, we don’t have this built in secondary stream to farm animals and our waste tends to end up going to landfill. So what can we do about it?
- Buy what you need: A few years ago our family joined a CSA, a community supported agriculture, so that we could “buy local” and get our produce from a local farmer. Anyone else do this? We were feeling pretty good about ourselves when we signed up. And then the produce started coming and it turns out a lot of stuff grown by our CSA wasn’t what we really wanted. We couldn’t eat that many radishes or other Midwestern vegetables and we wasted more food than I can remember.Are you buying the portion size you need or what is the best value? We are such value driven shoppers, that how can we not buy twice as much produce for only 40% more money? But when it goes bad we throw it away and just think what a good deal we got!If you are making the decision to buy something that will only live a short time at your hose before it is no longer edible, do you have a gameplan for it?
- Stop caring so much about produce appearance: Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of produce is deemed edible but not marketable because our appearance standards are so high for our food. Grocers will pitch the ugly items, farmers can’t sell the ugly items, because we as consumers won’t buy them. In a world in which we Instagram our dinner, we are choosing waste over practicality for the sake of beauty that probably won’t be noticeable on your dinner plate anyway.
- Save more: A study back in 1987 found that those who lived through the Great Depression wasted half as much food as those who did not. Waste is a mindset. Who saves their bacon grease to use cooking later? Make stale bread into croutons? Vegetable scrap into stock? We have choices for what to do with our waste more often than we realize.
- Have a forced “leftovers” night one or two times a week: It forces you to shop in your refrigerator first for dinner and not to let your Tupperware containers become biology experiments of color and fuzz.
- Research and try to understand food labeling: We suck at this as an industry and country. There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used on labels to describe quality dates and the consumer is usually confused.
- A “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
As consumers we should understand that typical perishable items have “sell by” dates and that things like milk are usually good up to a week or so after that, while meats are good for a few days after which you should use or freeze.
The government is passing new rules in this arena this past December to help the situation, but it is still up to us to understand it.
Our impact as consumers
Outside of food waste there is one other subject I want to discuss: the health of our food and our supply chain and what you purchase.
For better or worse you as consumers have the real power over the food industry. They respond to what consumers want to purchase and that is oftentimes what as perceive as healthy. This doesn’t mean that it is or isn’t really healthy.
In the 80s, fat was perceived as the enemy and products lowered fat and as a result we were getting more calories from sugars and carbs. In the 90s, saturated fat was deemed as the enemy and to fight that partially hydrogenated soybean oil was developed to replace saturated fats, such as butter and lard, in food products. Today we realize that hydrogenated soybean oil is a trans fat that is now deemed as the worse thing of all and we should be going back to butter and keep fats in our products, so we get less of our calories from carbs. To that end products are all heading that way.
That is just one example, but the industry will respond to what consumers want. The company I work for is now the second largest organic food producer in the US and we barely made anything organic 15 years ago. We just spent an huge effort to strip out all artificial colors from our products and only because we believe it is what consumers want. Cage-free eggs, gluten-free cereals, hormone-free meats—the industry is responding to you as consumers. The best way to voice your desire for change is with your wallet.
I will just ask that you spend some time and research on any concerns you have. I sometimes find it ironic that the very progressive people who admonish those who deny the science of climate change will be the first to deny the overwhelming science that says that vaccines and GMO food products are positive things in this world.
In any case, the power is in your hands so know that every decision you make in the grocery store is all a part of the large voice that determines what your food industry will provide.
Action Items: Food and Our World
- Research how to source food for the hungry
- Closest food distribution centers
- Food assistance
- Community gardens
- Journal how much food your family wastes
- Think of ways you can save more of your home waste