Why We Waste: Ugly Food, Expiration Dates, and More


Food Waste Issue #1: Expecting Food to Look Perfect.

Tons of food (literally, many tons) is wasted every year just because of looks. It's estimated that approximately 20% of produce or more gets thrown out for cosmetic reasons like weird shapes, odd colors, or blemishes on a peel you don't even eat. That's 1 in 5 fruits and vegetables getting tossed into landfill even though they're just as nutritious and delicious to eat. Why are we wasting so much food?!

What You Can Do: Buy Ugly Produce!

Photo from Fresh Harvest Blog

Photo from Fresh Harvest Blog

If you can, buy your produce at a farmer's market as farmers are more likely to offer their whole range of items. You can also ask growers if they only bring their best looking items, and if so, what they do with the others. Encourage them to bring and sell their weird looking produce. 

You can also support organizations or companies that work to address this issue. I buy a weekly fruit & vegetable box from Fresh Harvest, an Atlanta-based farm delivery company that purchases all the ugly stuff. According to their blog, produce at supermarket chains are typically evaluated according to looks: #1s fit our idea of a perfect fruit or vegetable, and #2s don't. Unfortunately, even though those #2s are perfectly good to eat, they often just get thrown out. Fresh Harvest not only accepts #2 produce, but pays #1 prices for it, and that money goes directly to local farms in my community.    

A fewer larger-scale companies such as Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest sell ugly produce at a discount and deliver it to your door. Their services are only available in a few cities, but check them out - they might be able to get ugly fruits and vegetables directly to you!

If you shop at independent supermarkets, you can also try asking them to stock more ugly produce. A few larger chains have supposedly addressed the issue, but until we regularly see misshapen and oddly sized produce at big box supermarkets, there's still more to be done. 

Food Waste Issue #2: Confusing, Misleading, and Generally Unstandardized Use of Expiration Dates

Did you know that the expiration dates we commonly see on packaged food (i.e. Sell By, Best By, Use By, and Best Before) don't represent any regulated or standardized system of food safety? Lots of people carefully check these dates and throw out anything past due, even if it looks totally fine to eat. According to the National Resources Defense Council: 'The current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety. In fact, the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat.'  In their 2013 report The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste In America, it's estimated that 9 out of 10 Americans are wasting edible food based on these ambiguous expiration dates. 

Unfortunately, the problem isn't limited to that last step of household consumption; it extends all the way back through the food chain. Because we as consumers don't want to buy items close to these dates, supermarkets and food businesses often won't accept perfectly good food from suppliers, or they trash it as soon as the date approaches to make room for newer items. The entire food industry, from farms to businesses to home cooks, wastes hundreds of billions of dollars worth of food, partially based on this confusing dating system.  

What You Can Do: Buy Near-Expiration Date Food

While the NRDC works to push for standardization of date labels, you can do something too. I live near a few independent supermarkets that start discounting items as they reach expiration date. If you are planning to eat that item soon, buy it! It's a win-win-win; supermarkets unload food that might otherwise go to waste, you save money, and together we rescue that item from going to landfill. I've even seen it happen at a few large chain supermarkets recently. If your local grocery store doesn't do it, try speaking to a store manager. The more people that ask for this option, the more likely more supermarkets will start implementing the practice.  

Food Waste Issue #3: Life.

Aka all the things that get in the way of cooking the food you bought. Overambitious shopping, busy schedules, deciding to go out to eat, making too much food, not knowing how to cook a particular food, not having systems set up to reduce food waste, and dozens of other reasons that we throw out good food.   

What You Can Do: Click Around!

There are many reasons why we throw out food at home, and that's why we've created this website. Bought too much food or too busy to cook something? Or just don't know what to do with it? Look up the surplus ingredient and find out how to best store it, extend its life, or cook it. Want to stop throwing out scraps? Implement some no-waste strategies in your kitchen. We hope you'll find this site useful, and if you're interested in learning more, check out some more Food Waste Resources here