Let’s say you peer into your refrigerator and unearth leftover lasagna from a month ago, broccoli florets that have turned brown and a carton of cottage cheese that doesn’t pass the sniff test. You throw it out, right? Even edible food gets tossed from supermarkets, restaurants and our own pantries because of some sort of flaw.
USDA Economic Research estimates that 31 percent of the overall food supply at the retail and consumer level went uneaten in 2010. Some sources site the percentage of wasted food at 40 percent and it’s winding up in our municipal landfills. Twenty percent of the landfills’ content is food waste (harvestpublicmedia.org). We waste food while children and adults go to bed hungry because they don’t have enough to eat.
Journalist Jonathan Bloom describes an American paradox: “An increasing number of Americans face poverty and, as a result, hunger … so much of the food that isn’t consumed is perfectly edible, yet we lack the will and the means to collect and distribute it to those in need. That must change” (www.spotlightonpoverty.org, May 9, 2011).
From his global perspective, Pope Francis also sees “a paradox of plenty.” There is enough food for everyone but not everyone gets to eat, while excessive consumption occurs before our very eyes, he said, citing an observation St. John Paul II made at the First Conference on Nutrition in 1992. Pope Francis views the throwing away of good food as stealing from the poor.
We give myriad reasons (excuses?) for throwing away food — from spoilage to expiration dates to packaging problems — but don’t give enough thought to choices we make in grocery aisles or in our profit-obsessed culture. “Buy two, get one for free” entices us from a bargain standpoint. It doesn’t make sense if one of those items ends up in the trash because it spoiled before we got around to consuming it. Perhaps those of us who aren’t farmers, and maybe even some farmers, have lost an appreciation of food as part of God’s bountiful creation, a gift from our Creator. Around 2006-08 many people in impoverished countries faced starvation as world food prices escalated. Commodities speculation was among the culprits.
Our task begins with reflection – on food as gift. In his Nov. 12, 2006, Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI said the faithful need to “get in the habit of thanking the Creator for everything.” He “urged families to teach their children to say grace before meals so that they learn not to take God’s gifts for granted” (CNS, Nov. 13, 2006).
Next, we could begin paying more attention to what leaves our kitchens. Harvest Public Media reports on an EPA program “Food: Too Good to Waste” aimed at helping families reduce their share of food that’s wasted — by measuring what they throw out at home (http://harvestpublicmedia.org/article/food-waste-weighing-down-us-food-system).
As a third step, consider doing online research on Food Product Dating. Many misconceptions exist about the storage life of the food we eat. Here’s a helpful website address to clear confusion: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating.
Pope Francis suggests several approaches that speak to our response at a broader level. Turn first to urgent priorities, be witnesses of charity, and be guardians rather than masters of the earth.
He calls us to renounce the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and to act above all on the structural causes of inequality. Don’t be afraid of getting involved in politics because systemic change often requires legislative action, such as ensuring that our economy serves the common good.
St. Isidore, patron saint of farmers, loved the poor and was said to have miraculously supplied them with food. A verse from his feast day prayer (May 15) might be worth sticking on the refrigerator. “May the example of St. Isidore urge us to share our food with the hungry and to work for the salvation of mankind.”