I was driving down a backcountry road in September with an older Dutch woman from my church. We passed a field of apple trees littered with rotting apples that had fallen to the ground. My companion had a very visceral reaction.
“Pastor,” she said, “my grandfather was a farmer in Holland. He always taught us that wasting food was an evil sin. How do you feel about that?”
At the time, I didn’t know what to say. Like most Christians, I tended to think of sin as willful acts of disobedience. Apples fall off apple trees and rot on the ground. That’s just how it goes. In fact, that’s how trees reproduce.
But as I was recently reading John’s gospel, I was struck with this conversation again. After Jesus feeds the 5,000, he commands the disciples to gather all the food together so none would be wasted.
“When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” —John 6:12
It struck me that this food production was a miraculous act. Why worry about what was left? Jesus could recreate this miracle any time he chose, but that didn’t make this miraculous food any less important to him.
The food we waste
Did you know that the United States wastes half of its food supply? In fact, organic waste is the second largest component of landfills in the U.S. (and a huge contributor to greenhouse gasses).
If you ask most people, they’ll tell you that they’re against wasting food. So why do we waste so much of it? In the 1960s, Americans wasted 12.2 million tons of food—by 2012, that number had ballooned to 35 million tons.
We want beautiful food
One of the big contributors to this problem is the American aversion to anything that’s not aesthetically appealing. We’d rather buy an apple covered in wax to seal in its perfect appearance than buy an organic apple that appears imperfect. Farmers are forced to cull a percentage of their harvest purely because of imperfections in a fruit or vegetable’s appearance. An NRDC report showed that in California post-harvest culling, 30 percent of plums and pears were thrown out based on their appearance alone.
After farmers cull their produce, grocery stores remove more produce that is not attractive enough for their shoppers. Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, told The Atlantic, “Grocery stores routinely trash produce for being the wrong shape or containing minor blemishes.”
Arbitrary expiration dates
A 2016 survey by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic revealed that more than a third of respondents threw out food that wasn’t used by the sell-by or best-by dates, and 84 percent admitted to doing so periodically. The sad thing about expiration dates is that they’re seldom a reflection of food safety. In fact, once food passes its peak quality, it’s considered past its date. Why? Because expiration dates are about protecting a brand, not the consumer.
It’s estimated that the average household loses upwards of $475 each year due to trashing food after its expiration date.
Food waste isn’t morally neutral
American’s spend dramatically less of their income on food than the rest of the world. The average U.S. household pays about 6 percent of their income on food. When you compare this to countries like Egypt (43 percent) or Pakistan (nearly half of their income), it’s pretty staggering. This discrepancy has a pretty negative impact on how Americans view food waste.
As a culture, it would be ideal for us to look at our whole system of food production, sales and consumption to discover areas where changes could be made. Small changes to farm subsidies could have a dramatic effect on the supply side, making dramatic, positive changes in the national and international food systems. But because there’s big money to be made on subsidies, the likelihood for changes there are grim.
But there are things we, as consumers, can do to reduce the amount of food we waste:
- Make meal plans. A lot of food is wasted shopping meal by meal.
- Plan meals for ingredients you have. If you need to buy cilantro for a recipe, plan other meals to ensure it’s used before it goes bad.
- Check your fridge and cabinets before shopping to avoid doubling up on what you don’t need.
- Keep a list of what’s in your freezer so you can use it before it’s ruined by freezer burn.
- Be careful buying in bulk. You’re only saving money if you’re using what you buy.
- Set aside time for food prep after you go shopping. A lot of produce is wasted because it’s improperly stored or requires too much time to prepare when you want a quick snack.
- Cook perishable items and freeze to use later.
- Share meals when you go out. Most restaurants offer portions that are way too huge.
All food is a miracle
Jesus commanded that the disciples pick up the leftover food after he miraculously fed 5,000 people. It didn’t matter that the food was provided supernaturally—because, in truth, all food is a miraculous gift from God. And as long as there are people who don’t have enough, wasting food is a form of moral bankruptcy.