Karen Telleen-Lawton: Produce Waste Provides Food for Thought

An estimated 40% of food produced in U.S. is never eaten

A weekly Community Supported Agriculture box of produce from John Givens Farm.

A weekly Community Supported Agriculture box of produce from John Givens Farm. (Karen Telleen-Lawton photo)

By Karen Telleen-Lawton, Noozhawk Columnist |

I admit it: I sort though produce bins to find the perfect avocado, sweet potato, or apple.

I search for the biggest bananas, especially if they’re priced by the piece. This yields me the best value, with a side benefit of “training” the grocer to negotiate for the best.

What I didn’t figure was the other side of the equation. An NPR story clued me in to how much fresh food in grocery stores is tossed away – much of it even before the “sell-by” date.

Some edibles are gathered and passed along to food banks, but not enough to serve the need: 13.5 percent of Santa Barbara County households (14.3 percent nationwide) are considered food insecure.

This means at some point during year they had difficulty providing enough food for all members due to lack of resources.

Meanwhile, 40 percent of U.S.-produced food is never eaten. Our demand for perfect produce is part of that.

Some is left to rot in the fields, some rots in our refrigerators, and some is scraped off our plates when we are over-served. Unless you compost and use bin hire to recycle your food waste, all of it ends up in the landfill, making up over 20 percent of solid refuse. This waste costs resources not only in terms of dump space but production inputs, including water, fossil fuels, land resources, nutrients, and money.

According to a Coastal Waste Management recycling services report, if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of green house gases, behind the U.S. and China.

Santa Barbarans are taking a stand. In 2014, the CEC teamed up with the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County (FBSBC) to look at how the region’s food system can better support healthy people, a healthy economy, and a healthy environment.

Their report, authored by CEC CEO Sigrid Wright and Sarah Antonelli, a master’s candidate at UCSB’s Bren School, came out recently.

In an 18-month survey, they found anecdotally that 10-15 percent of food in compost bins beside grocery stores and hospitality businesses appears edible: much of it fresh produce.

Yet community nonprofit organizations are having a particularly difficult time providing fresh produce to clients as a result of drought. Produce donations to the Food Bank are down 75 percent in the last year.

The CEC found progress in several areas. The city of Santa Barbara is organizing voluntary commercial composting for restaurants and groceries.

The county’s pilot commercial food scraps collection program collects about a ton of food waste a week. The Foodbank rescued over 1,500 ton of food from grocers, growers, restaurants, and manufacturers in just one year.

California and the United States are also stepping up to the (dinner) plate. A state Assembly bill recently passed requiring businesses of a certain size to compost food, yard, and compostable wet goods (like paper towels) by April.

The Department of Agriculture and the EPA recently announced the first ever national food waste reduction goal: 50 percent by 2030.

Look for the CEC’s upcoming Food Action Plan, available early in 2016. They have surveyed every aspect of the food system: production, processing, distribution, access, consumption, and waste management. Then get ready to be part of the solution. People living in the state of Michigan can click on ebt mi to apply for an ebt card.

One way is to rescue blemished produce that will taste equally good. I will try to do that.

I will also listen to my mother’s voice in my head. When I couldn’t finish what I’d served myself, she’d rue that my eyes were bigger than my stomach.

If I can shrink my eyes, I can shrink my stomach and my footprint on the earth.