The Clean Plate Club

Let's Talk About Food Waste

by | Jun 27, 2018

Remember “The Clean Plate Club”? Turns out it wasn’t just something parents made up to admonish kids about not eating all the food on their plates. Its history goes back to 1917 when Herbert Hoover, America’s first Food Administrator, proclaimed “food will win the war.” That campaign ended after the First World War, but in 1947 the “Clean Plate” theme returned. (source: Time magazine)

Since America had become strong agriculturally while parts of Europe were struggling to survive, the U.S. instituted a campaign called “The Gospel of the Clean Plate: Don’t Waste Any Food.” Thousands of women volunteers went through their communities asking neighbors to sign a food pledge. Fourteen million families displayed this sign in their windows to show they supported the campaign. (source: The Great War, PBS).

So, food waste is not a new issue. It was important in early 20th century America and it’s back as an important concern today.

Reports are constantly being released with data and statistics on food waste. They may vary a little depending on the source but the thing they all have in common is that the numbers are huge. According to recent data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and published in the journal PLOS ONE, Americans throw away approximately 150,000 tons of food a day adding up to $160 billion in food waste per year. And thirty million acres of cropland are used to produce this food that’s not eaten.

According to the Food Waste Alliance, it’s estimated that 25-40 percent of the food that is grown, processed and transported in the United States will never be consumed. Where does it go? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more food reaches landfills than other types of municipal solid waste.

These numbers are especially troubling since one in eight Americans is defined as “food insecure,” meaning that at some point they have difficulty feeding their family. And the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that 800 million people worldwide are considered chronically hungry.

Obviously, food waste is not just an environmental issue – it has serious social and economic implications as well.

How did we get here? As a 2016 article in The Atlantic put it, America leads the way in food waste because “calories are cheap and people are picky.” But the great American squandering of produce appears to be a cultural dynamic as well, continues Atlantic writer Adam Chandler. We have developed an obsession with the aesthetic quality of food and will not buy (or we buy and throw out) anything that looks bruised or a bit wilted. But it’s not all our fault as consumers. Often grocers won’t even put fresh produce on their shelves if it looks the least bit ugly. Fresh fruits and vegetables account for 39% of food waste, followed by dairy (17%), meat and mixed meat dishes (14%), and grains and grain mixed dishes (12%).

One example of ways people are developing to counter this waste is Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco company which promises to deliver ugly, healthy and delicious produce at a 30% savings over grocery store prices. And it’s catching on: When Imperfect Produce entered the Seattle market, their goal was to sign up 300 households by the end of the year. Instead, more than 2,000 signed up within four weeks. (“Seattle’s love affair with ugly fruits and veggies,” Seattle Times, January 6, 2018).

But individual shoppers and diners alone don’t make up these numbers:

  • The average amount of purchased food that is wasted in a full-service restaurant is 11.3 percent.
  • Nearly 85 percent of all food waste happens in homes or consumer-facing businesses, such as restaurants, retail grocers and institution cafeterias.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 23, 2017

Where do we stand locally?  We’re better than some. According to “The United States of Financial Waste,” a recent survey of 2,000 households conducted by professional resources site Hloom, Georgia ranks about in the middle in percentages of which states waste the most groceries and restaurant meals

Last fall, food waste was one of the topics on the agenda for the 2017 Chefs Collaborative Summit held in Atlanta. The Chefs Collaborative is a national nonprofit whose mission is “to inspire, educate and celebrate chefs and food professionals building a better food system.” Their goal is for sustainable practices to become second nature for all chefs in this country. As part of this conference, local chef Steven Satterfield held a workshop where a group of the chefs “talked trash.”

And some hunger relief organizations in the Atlanta area are creating partnerships to reduce food waste and make more food available to the folks in need in our communities. The Atlanta Community Food Bank, one of the largest hunger-relief groups in the Southeast, recently established a partnership with Second Helpings Atlanta. The collaboration with Second Helpings Atlanta, a nonprofit food rescue organization, will allow the Food Bank to expand its efforts to reduce food waste in Metro Atlanta and get more food to local people in need. These two groups will continue to work together to identify new food recovery opportunities and test, refine, and implement new programs to reduce food waste – and hunger – in Atlanta.

Food Waste today is about more than a clean plate – when we waste food we also are wasting other important resources – water, labor, food, money, and valuable crop land.

Hopefully, you’re asking yourself now what else we can do – individually and as businesses – to help in the effort to reduce food waste.

Watch this space for news on what we can do to improve food and organics recycling.

Spoiler alert … there will be talk of commercial composting and anaerobic digesters/

Read More About It …

Articles on food waste are showing up in publications from Forbes to the Huffington Post, to the Washington Post, to WasteDive, to the Atlantic. We’ve included some of the things we’re reading:

Additional Resources …

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