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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Dabis

Why we throw away food we think has gone bad... when it hasn’t.



July 11, 2023

New York Times

California Today newsletter


More than one-third of the food sold in the country ends up going to waste, in part because consumers throw away food they think has gone bad when it hasn’t.

The facts are: there isn’t a standardized food dating system in the U.S. so food companies can put whatever they want on their products. The dates on most shelf stable foods are deceptive because they are based on selling more products - not on protecting the consumer.

California’s residential composting program, which began last year, is an enormous undertaking meant to reduce the amount of trash going into the state’s landfills and the climate-polluting gases the facilities release.

Landfills are California’s third-largest source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that’s released by banana peels, egg shells and other organic waste as it decomposes. Though the program is off to a rocky start, more composting should begin to curb a major source of emissions.


But what if we threw out less food to begin with?

Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, with support from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Californians Against Waste, introduced a bill this year that would restrict “sell by” dates and other labels that federal officials say often prompt consumers to needlessly discard canned goods, boxes of cereal and produce, while providing little information about food safety. If you want to look it up, the Bill is AB-660 Food labeling: quality dates, safety dates, and sell by dates and if you want to follow the Bill go here.


The bill would require manufacturers of perishable products to use only standard phrases for expiration dates — either “best if used by” in reference to freshness, or “use by” in reference to food safety. Those would replace “sell by,” “best before,” “enjoy by” and other language that Irwin said causes confusion about whether the food has merely passed its peak or has truly gone bad.

“It’s completely confusing to the consumer, and that’s why we’re ending up with all this food waste.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than one-third of the food sold in the country ends up going to waste, in part because consumers throw away food they think has gone bad when it hasn’t.

There is no federal law requiring uniformity in the way perishable food is dated, and for the most part, “dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety,” the department says.

The average American spends $1,300 a year on food that is thrown away, said Jenn Engstrom, the state director for the advocacy organization CalPIRG. From Veronica:

Much of the food we put into the Little Free Food Pantry is rescued food that grocery stores are not allowed to sell because of these faux best before dates.

So we distribute lots and lots of food and save it from being thrown away. The people in my neighborhood (and people who travel here for free food) get free organic produce sometimes, and lots and lots of shelf stable food, and there is less methane released from landfills.


The food rescue piece of this food pantry outweighs the challenging parts of doing it. After three years, it's the same things. People vandalizing the pantry, destroying signage, leaving behind garbage, donating rotting food or things no one would ever eat.


I have found an entire bag of flour that has been dumped on the sidewalk. Or broken glass. That has not happened for many months. There are specific things that I have learned like: do not leave pancake mix or anything flour-like in the pantry overnight because someone might dump it during the night and that means cleanup which takes time.


For the most part, people are mindful of the food pantry because it saves them hundreds of dollars in grocery bills every month so why would you abuse that and damage what is essentially a money tree?


In a 24 hour period on any given day, the cost of the food that is in the pantry adds up to $100. On Wednesday, we put $250 of high quality fresh bread in, for free. The people I meet who are regulars have come to rely on this bread every Wednesday and they appreciate it very much.

It has been an experiment in seeing if the Honor System works. It does, mostly. Most people have a moral compass and if they know that other families and individuals need the food too, they will not take it all. I do love bumping into people who are dropping food off. We always have the most amazing connections and conversations. I have learned to trust in the organic flow of things. That seems to work best. I trust that a neighbor will come along and see the pantry is empty and be inspired to bring a few things by. That has been happening with much more frequency and I am very grateful to you, if you are one of those people who drop off food. I have been doing pickups twice a week of large amounts of food and there is always something in there now. I am relieved that I do not have to do this project by myself. There are many people helping to keep it going because they see the value of it.


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