WASHINGTON, DC, February 17, 2013 – A report that 13,200 boxes of Girl Scout cookies were destroyed in a Riverside, California warehouse before being taken to a local landfill has raised controversy and brings light to the issue of wasted food in America.
In a video released by CBS Los Angeles, a worker cheers “Goodbye, Girl Scout cookies!” The cookies had not expired and were perfectly edible before they were destroyed. The video was taken in May of 2012, but this has been reportedly happening for several years.
The cookies were traced back to San Gorgonio Council of the Girl Scouts in Redlands. According to Chuck MacKinnon, the San Gorgonio spokesperson, the organization was not aware that the cookies were being trashed. MacKinnon explained that their supplier, Virginia-based ABC Bakery, allowed the organization to return 1 percent of unsold cookies without having to pay for them.
The cookies in question, according to MacKinnon, were those returned to ABC, and it was ABC’s decision to destroy them, unbeknownst to the Girl Scouts. MacKinnon made clear that San Gorgonio had donated over 100,000 boxes of unsold cookies last year alone.
Food banks and shelters around the country were not pleased with the news. Most agreed that they could have used the cookies and that destroying them was a terrible waste of food.
Sources at Girl Scout headquarters in New York stated that they do not have an organization-wide policy for disposing of unsold cookies.
Food waste in the U.S.
The incident is indicative of a much larger problem.
The conclusion of a 2012 Issue Paper by Dana Gunders at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) is startling: 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten. It’s not just the Thin Mints that are going in the landfill. According to the NRDC study, the food lost is worth roughly $165 billion, literally in the trash.
Food is wasted at every step in the food supply chain, from farm to fork. A study presented at the Dusseldorf Save Food Congress analyzed the difference between high and low-income countries in terms of where the heaviest waste occurs along the food supply chain. Most waste in low-income countries occurs early in the supply chain due to poor storage facilities, poor infrastructure, inadequate transportation, lack of refrigeration, inadequate market facilities and packaging. In high-income countries like the U.S., waste occurs late in the supply chain due to aesthetic selection, waste related to food manufacture, poor temperature conditions during display, lack of planning, best-before-dates, and plain old leftovers.
The Girl Scout cookie incident is illustrative of lack of planning; the organization ordered more cookies than it could sell, and the least expensive thing to do was to return 1 percent of the unsold cookies to the supplier, which subsequently destroyed them rather than give them away or donate them.
But there are many other facets to the problem of food waste. For instance, restaurants serve huge portion sizes nobody can finish, and consumers do not understand that expiration and best-by dates do not mean that food is inedible when the dates have passed. These are just two reasons that waste has gotten so bad that we are throwing away nearly half of our food.
It is disheartening to realize that just a 15 percent reduction in waste could feed more than 25 million people, according to the NRDC study. In a time when more Americans are struggling economically and nearly one in six lacks a secure food supply, finding a solution to waste makes more sense than ever.
The other costs of uneaten food
Besides the money value of wasted food ‒$165 billion per year ‒ throwing away so much edible food is also costly in terms of energy, land use, water, and environment. “Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten,” according to the NRDC study.
This enormous waste is also costly in terms of waste management and the environment. According to the NRDC study, uneaten food is the largest single component of municipal solid waste in the U.S. It also “accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions.”
The Girl Scout cookie “scandal” is admittedly very small in comparison to the total amount of food wasted every year in this country. Nevertheless, it serves as a wake-up call to all of us.
America is wasting an enormous amount of food, and individuals, society, government and the food industry must work together to address the problem.
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