Thursday, June 6, 2013

Pope's call to eliminate food waste won't feed a single poor person

    Pope Francis has just declared the wasting of food equivalent to "stealing from the poor." It's a statement that reflects a poor understanding of economics.
    I remember as a child being told to eat everything on my plate and not to throw away a sandwich. "Think of all the starving children in India," we were told. Today I think children are told that it's the Africans who are starving.
    Finally we got wiser and would tell the sermonizer to "just put it in a box and mail it to them."
    Certainly there is plenty of food wasted in the United States each year. A recent study said 40 percent of American food production is "wasted," whether in the fields, on the way to and from market, in processing, or thrown away uneaten or spoiled. The study says that if we reduced food waste by 15 percent we could feed 25 million more people each year. Apparently unanswered in the study is exactly how this food is to be delivered to these people.
    Food is money. When we waste food we waste money. So we shouldn't waste food. But time is money, too. When we waste time we waste money. So sometimes we make choices and throw away food money to get time money; or manufacturers waste 10 cents worth of food to save a dollar in labor and processing costs.
    The fact is that food is cheap in relation to the cost of reducing food waste. Restaurants could cut their serving sizes and offer free seconds, which would probably help all of our waistelines. But somebody would have to cook those seconds. Somebody would have to serve those seconds. And somebody would have to clean the extra plate. It's far more efficient -- and cheaper -- to just put enough food for a hearty appetite in the first place, even it it increases food waste.
    I keep a bell pepper on hand for cooking, particularly when they are in season and low in price. Sometimes I don't need a pepper and it goes bad and into the garbage. I could just wait until I was sure I needed the pepper, hop in my car, drive to the store and get a nice, fresh, bell pepper. But what is the cost in doing this, in terms of not only time, but gas? Isn't it better and cheaper to just accept that a few bell peppers a year will have to be discarded?
    If everyone in the world stopped wasting food tomorrow the price of food might drop, thus benefiting the poor. But guess what happens next? Farmers cut back on production on their more marginal land, since the crop price would have dropped lower than the cost of production, and prices go back up again.
    I try to buy pasta on sale at 50 cents per pound. I frequently cook about four ounces more than I really need, so roughly 12.5 cents worth of pasta goes in  the garbage can. It's cheaper to cook four extra ounces than it is to measure the exact amount, marry partially used boxes, etc. And I know there will be plenty to go around. But if the pope wants the 12.5 cents of pasta that we throw out on a regular basis I'll put it in a Ziploc bag and refrigerate it until he has a chance to come pick it up. Of course, the Ziploc bag costs about six cents, so he'll need to reimburse me for that.
    Eliminating food waste will not put one ounce of extra food on the plates of the poor. If eliminating food waste would feed the starving, then when Black Oak Arkansas disbanded every poor person in the world should have gotten a guitar. They didn't.

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