Bravo, John Oliver: you may have officially made food waste a mainstream issue.
His recent segment is long (17 minutes) but well worth the watch.
Oliver reminds us that while this is a household issue — and realizing the magnitude of food we waste in dollars may be what finally galvanizes us to change — the problem of food waste also needs to be tackled by wide sweeping policy change. First and foremost, he recommends that a bill be passed that provides tax breaks to small businesses for donating food. Sounds good, and in fact a bill like this has already been proposed, but in a ridiculous political twist, the bill has subsequently been deformed beyond all recognition and now has literally nothing to do with food donations. ::Face to palm::
The other thing that earns Oliver’s scorn are sell-by dates. Baby formula is actually the only product that the FDA requires to have an expiration date. All those other date stamps we see? Suggestions, and confusing ones at that. There’s “best by”, “sell by”, merely dates with no attempt at an explanation, and who knows what else. The beneficiaries of this are not the innocent consumer who is being protected from possible illness, but the manufacturers who are basically ensuring a quicker turnaround time before they get to re-stock grocery store shelves with their products. My favorite quote from the segment was something to the effect of “since Cap’n Crunch can’t pull an Apple move and come out with a new operating system that makes their cereal incompatible with your mouth,” they and other brands have to figure out other ways, aka sell-by dates, to get you to buy something new from them.
I went dumpster diving a handful of times back in the day, and while it was mostly an entertaining midnight rendezvous with some like-minded friends, I wasn’t shocked so much by the quantity of what we found (though there was that time we got probably a good four bushels of pomegranates that were all in great shape — so many pomegranate smoothies… yum…) as the quality. My WTF? moment came the night we peered into a dumpster and saw boxes upon boxes of NutriGrain granola bars. Let’s just think for a second about the fact that these granola bars were individually wrapped in impermeable plastic, and then packaged together in cardboard boxes. Whatever sell-by date may have been stamped on those most certainly hadn’t yet passed. What in the world was this perfectly edible food doing in the garbage?? Our guess was that the boxes had been slightly dented, thus creating a good enough reason to clear them off the shelves and make way for the latest shipment. Clearly, we have a problem when the “best” solution to our abundance is to throw it away; resulting in the entire agriculture, harvesting, manufacturing, and distribution process being a total loss; contributing to greenhouse gas emissions (decomposing food in landfills generate methane, which is far more potent of a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide); and depriving food insecure households the opportunity to consume this food. Yes, we need systems in place to re-route the inevitable food waste, but it’s also time for some major re-thinking about agricultural production and what that means for businesses and ag policy alike. I’m ready for John Oliver’s next segment to be a deep dive into that niche topic.