Updated: October 2, 2012 6:05AM
Like many children of my generation, I sometimes finished a meal to avoid shame, not satisfy hunger. “Think of the starving children in India or Africa who would love to have what’s on your plate,” my parents chided. Occasionally we replied, “Take it! Wrap it up and send it to them.” Then we heard the speech about how it’s not that easy, although we youngsters truly wished it were.
Recent news has resurrected that old regret. Several sources reported last week that approximately 40 percent of the food the United States produces goes to waste. A second statistic, that one of every six Americans hasn’t enough to eat, compounds the disgrace of our scraping 35 million tons of food into the garbage every year. We needn’t ship it overseas, but merely share it with neighbors in our own communities.
If we consider all the water, fuel, fertilizer and labor expended on growing food no one eats, the scope of our wastefulness appears even more ominous. For example, from farm and field to plate and cup, it takes more than 600 gallons of water to produce a single hamburger and 37 gallons for a cup of coffee. Given the current price of oil, we probably don’t want to know the equivalent figures on wasted gasoline and diesel fuel.
A second childhood memory makes me suspect that we have trapped ourselves in the insanity of our prodigal lifestyle. Where I grew up, dairy farmers sometimes got paid for their milk and then emptied it by the truckload into the creeks that ran through their pastures because the bottlers and distributers had all they could sell. When we children brought up India’s starving masses in that context, we received our first lesson in economics. Giving away the “excess” milk would drive down prices, which in turn would put farmers and processors out of business, and then no one without a family cow would have milk or cheese.
In other words, the free market really isn’t so free and the laws of supply and demand necessitate a bit of shameful, behind-the-scenes manipulation. So maybe we have to waste 40 percent of what we grow just to keep the market afloat, even though it means burning up irreplaceable fuel supplies, wasting increasingly precious fresh water at alarming rates, and watching one in six of our neighbors go hungry in plain sight of over-abundance. The word “addiction” comes to mind.
Has anyone a treatment plan? Each of us can clean our plates and exercise prudence at the grocer’s, but the biggest waste problems occur on farms and at restaurants and food retailers. A quick search on the web reveals that many such businesses have lately entered cooperative arrangements with local pantries and regional food bank networks to get perishable, easily wasted food to those who need it but can’t pay for it. In 2010, Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest grocer, pledged $2 billion over five years, just over 2 percent of its profits during that time, to get food items it can’t sell into the hands of agencies that distribute it among the hungry.
Heartening as such examples are, our current flood of waste continues in spite of them. Unless our parents erred when they taught us, “Waste not, want not,” our profligacy will eventually drag us into still harder times.
Unwelcome as it is to hear this these days, we’ll not solve this problem with individualism and self-reliance. If we don’t find ways to think and work together on this complex matter, a generation not too distant will never have to worry about getting children to finish a meal.
Frederick Niedner is a professor of theology at Valparaiso University.