There is a tremendous issue plaguing the University of New Mexico, the United States and indeed, the entire world. Regrettably, this worrisome trend is also one that isn’t often at the forefront of the collective consciousness of our eco-obsessed generation. Perhaps the most troubling aspect is the relative ease with which our society can confront this multifaceted problem, and yet it persists as a maddeningly irksome horse-fly orbiting around our heads.
Take note of the curious case of food waste.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines food waste as “uneaten food and food preparation wastes from residences and commercial establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants and produce stands, institutional cafeterias and kitchens, and industrial sources like employee lunchrooms.” In 2015, the EPA estimated that 37.6 million tons of food ended up in landfills. This is a staggering sum. Another sobering statistic released in 2012 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states that 40 percent of food produced in America each year goes to waste. Globally, between one-third and one-half of all food is never eaten. In developed countries, that equates to a rough estimate of 220 pounds per person per year.
This is, relatively speaking, a silent crisis in the US. With news of desertification, rising sea levels, intensifying droughts and ever more vicious natural disasters saturating our feeds every day, one could be forgiven for overlooking this harsh reality. How fortunate many of us are to live within driving distance of virtually any grocery store we could think of to patronize! However, the consequences of food waste extend across a wide spectrum of overlapping societal and environmental concerns. For example, 2 billion people could be fed from the amount of food thrown away each year in the United States alone. Methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is released in enormous quantities from organic matter rotting in landfills. The 2012 report issued by the NRDC estimates US produce that never reaches our homes amounts to six billion pounds per year. Three hundred million barrels of oil is the price we pay yearly for all the food that ends up in our garbage. Freshwater used for agriculture and livestock, an issue not unfamiliar for those who grew up in the arid Southwest, is thusly wasted for every chile or steak not consumed. This aspect becomes startling to the extreme when one realizes that water drawn for agriculture accounts for nearly 90 percent of usage worldwide.
Until recently, a great deal of these figures were completely foreign to me. I had been at least moderately aware of the scope of our food insecurities in America for some time, but the magnitude of our food waste problem crashed down upon my conscience when I started my undergraduate studies at UNM in August of this year. On the first day of classes, I watched as swarms of students filtered in seeming perpetuity in and out of the Student Union Building. Most were passing through for a sandwich, a slice or two or an order of Szechuan beef with vegetables, and I was left dumbstruck as I saw tray after Styrofoam tray of half-eaten meals find their way into a garbage bin. My curiosity morbidly piqued, I skimmed the tops of every trash can in and around the building to see precisely how much edible food could be thrown away at 1pm on a Monday afternoon.
I could have eaten for free for a fortnight.
I want my intentions for this essay to be plain. I believe emphatically that most people don’t wish to destroy the only planet that we have; this is simply a call for awareness and action. As is often the case with environmental and social causes, a crucial step toward change begins with education. For example, an effective campaign in the UK beginning in 2007 saw a reduction of 21 percent in avoidable household food waste over a 5-year span. The simplest way to make a difference? Reduce your consumption and buy only what you need. Contact your elected representatives and urge them to follow France’s lead by mandating that supermarkets donate unsold food to charities and food banks. If you have the means, start a compost bin to divert food scraps from landfills, which will in turn reduce methane emissions from anaerobic decomposition. Encourage your friends to do the same.
In 2016, the US Department of Agriculture estimated that one in eight Americans had a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. This writer implores the University of New Mexico and President Stokes to begin a public awareness blitz on the urgent matter of campus food waste. Steps can be as simple as putting up posters in dining halls reminding students, faculty and staff that our neighbors in Albuquerque are hungry, too. A community garden and compost area on campus would be an invaluable resource as well, providing food for those in need and diverting campus waste from landfills. The university has taken admirable steps in recent years to become more environmentally friendly, but that is no reason to halt our forward momentum. Everyone needs to eat, and we have the means to ensure that more people do.