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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - October 14, 2011

Positively Green

Food waste and its environmental impact

by Iris Harrell

As someone always wanting to know where my next meal is coming from, I have felt an inner need to not waste food by my own careless consumption at stores or restaurants. I have become the unchallenged "Leftover Queen" in my family. I learned this habit from my World War II father, who also felt that leftovers were a valuable resource to be managed wisely.

I always feel the tension between having a fully stocked refrigerator with planned meals for the week versus failing to consume the already purchased, perishable products sitting in the refrigerator. When there is no milk, I feel edgy. When there are too many leftovers just before we get ready to take a trip, I feel my vigilance went out the window and I failed to do my duty as the "Leftover Queen."

Wasting resources somehow feels like a moral problem to me and a lack of gratitude for the wealth of the land we live in. I try not to be obsessive, but I do try to be mindful.

The added challenge is to not eat more calories than I need, so I don't create other life-threatening health issues such as high blood pressure, excess weight, cardiovascular disease etc. (and of course I don't want the potential "waste" to go to my waist.)

Food planning is almost a lost art among many of my friends, who seem happy to play it by ear and just stop at the nearest deli or restaurant on their way home. Perhaps because I am an official "Weight Watcher," I know that portion control along with balanced meals are harder to manage when I don't eat food prepared in my own kitchen. And food grazing does begin to happen about an hour or so before dinner. Better to have a bowl of fruit readily available than to have a knee-jerk reaction and stop for a dozen donuts on the way home to satisfy a sweet tooth that suddenly emerges from nowhere just before dinner preparations start.

From a "green" perspective, when food is wasted, the food that did not get consumed is only a small part of the actual wasted resources. The embodied energy content of wasted food may be a more important environmental index than the wasted food itself. Labor was wasted to grow the food. Water was wasted to grow the food. Fossil fuel was wasted to process, package and transport the food. CO2 and methane emissions from decomposing food impacts global climate change.

Seven percent of American greenhouse gas emissions in 2008 were attributed to American agriculture before calculating the energy used to process, package and transport the food. Recent studies reveal that comparing U.S. food supply versus U.S. food consumption, our food wasted has increased progressively by 50 percent since 1974. Twenty-five percent of total fresh water consumption is consumed by our national food waste. Three hundred million barrels of oil per year are wasted due to U.S. food waste.

Ironically there are global food shortages with famines in Africa and elsewhere, so the assumption is we need to increase worldwide agricultural production. There has been little discussion on food waste and food conservation.

Since 1974, the progressive increase in the U.S. food supply per capita has paralleled an increase in Americans' body weight, leading to an obesity epidemic. Besides the abundance of food available to us, there is an increased "push effect" of food marketing on TV and other social media. If I see a commercial for a juicy Burger King hamburger, I am more apt to want one in the next day or so, if not in the next hour.

Besides being plentiful in America, food is relatively inexpensive. Perhaps we value food less because of that.

Jonathan Bloom has written a book called "American Wasteland," which talks about our wasting food from farm to fork. One study in his book shows that 33 percent of our country's oils, fats, grains and dairy products end up in the garbage — a statistic that is both alarming and sad when one thinks of the famine crisis in several countries throughout the world.

My advice to myself this week is that I promise not to order more French fries than I can patriotically feel good about eating. And, I really don't need the calories or the guilt!

Iris Harrell is CEO and president of Harrell Remodeling, Inc. in Mountain View (www.harrell-remodeling.com). She can be reached at 650-230-2900 or irish@harrell-remodeling.com.