Dana Gunders on Making Food Waste a Social Taboo

Harvest workers crop strawberries during the opening of the crop season in 2010, in western Germany. ( Volker Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s the holiday season and you know what that means: food and lots of it.

And like most folks, you’ve probably had the following experience: You’re at a dinner party and helping to clean up. Then, somebody turns to the host and says, “Hey, where should I put all this salad?”

And the host says, “Toss it.”

And you don’t say it. But what you wanna say is, “Wait! I’ll eat that!”

We need to “make wasting food a social taboo,” says Dana Gunders, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

At one time, littering and smoking in public were not considered as offensive as they are today, and even drunk driving was winked at.  Gunders wants to see the same trajectory of opprobrium for food waste as for previously accepted behaviors.

“I’m really hoping that we can get to a point where wasting food be looked down upon,” Gunders said.

Americans throw away about 40 percent of their food. That’s like buying five bags of groceries and then leaving two of them at the store. Gunders wrote a book called “Waste Free Kitchen Handbook,” which is full of these sorts of facts about food waste and gives tips on how to cut down on wasting food.

Gunders says it’s become sort of “posh” in America to throw away food, but it wasn’t always this way.

“We are certainly wasting more food — about 50 percent more of it — than in the 70s,” she said. “This is a real change in attitude. (D)uring World War II, there was a huge campaign not to waste food.”

This included posters around the nation encouraging people to save food, she said. “The posters would say say things like food is a weapon, let’s save it.”

World War II may be over but that doesn’t make food any less valuable. Gunders wants us to think about the resources it takes to deliver food to our tables. There’s gas, labor, soil and water. In California, 80 percent of the state’s water goes toward growing food. And when you throw that food out, you’re throwing out the water used in its cultivation.

“And then, there’s the fact that somebody else needs that food,” Gunders said. “It’s really a moral tragedy that we’re all okay with this.”

Gunders says there are a few forces creating this situation. For one, the industrialization of the food industry has made food cheaper and more accessible in the U.S. than ever before.

“On the one hand we have one in six Americans who are food insecure, and that means they don’t know where their next meal will come from,” Gunders said. “On the other hand, for the other segment of the population, food is low cost and so it may be [an] inconvenience to save it.”

And, Gunders said, as we’ve shifted away from being an agrarian society, we’ve become even more out-of-touch with the value of food.

You can see this phenomenon play out among students who take part in gardening programs. Having grown the food, they’ve learned to value it more, Gunders said.

“When kids see how much it takes to grow a broccoli, they’re much more willing to eat it,” Gunders said. “And they’re less excited about throwing it out.”

I asked Gunders if she thought there was more “germophobia” around our food today, because I’ve seen more and more people who think sharing food is unhealthy because it spreads germs. So … better for your friend to throw out his half-eaten bowl of spaghetti than for you to eat it, is the thinking.

“I do think overall we do have more fear of our food than we used to,” Gunders said.

For example, people think you have to throw out food after their expiration dates. In fact, expiration dates are manufacturer suggestions for when the food is at its freshest. It’s not regulated and so really just the manufacturer’s best guess.

“People often think the food might make them sick after the expiration date,” Gunders said. “That’s not true.”

Gunders said your body is highly attuned to detect food that is going bad. It smells bad, it tastes weird, it feels slimy.

Gunders said not wasting food has taken on some urgency in recent years. At the same time we’re wasting more food than ever, we’re also growing more of it, and that’s wreaking havoc on the environment. For example, livestock agriculture worldwide is one of both the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases and destroyers of biodiversity.

If this is bumming you, don’t despair.

“The great news is that we can take this problem on,” Gunders said. “This is not climate change. This is about making small changes in our daily habits around food.”

The first step to not wasting food: Know Thyself.

Some people love leftovers and some people won’t touch them. If you’re somebody who finds them gross, Gunders suggests questioning your assumptions on why.

“But if that’s you, I’d say be more careful about the portions you’re cooking. And encourage your guests to take the food home.

“There’s this whole trend of carrying your coffee mug to the coffee shop,” Gunders said. “I’ve thought why don’t we carry our own leftover containers around?”

With that, happy holidays, and don’t forget to bring that leftover container to your next party!

Dana Gunders on Making Food Waste a Social Taboo 24 March,2016Queena Sook Kim

  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for an important and informative story….especially at this time of year! A little more planning on the part of consumers could make a huge difference in the amount of food they throw out.

  • Sheryll T.

    I always cringe when I know restaurants throw out perfectly good food rather than wrap it up, get in the car and drive it to homeless shelters — or to people on the street. The same with large supermarkets : a whole lot of that beautifully arrayed food is going to reach its ‘sell-by’ date sitting on the shelves. But it’s still perfectly edible food. I read about a man who organized a ‘sell by date’ market, getting an agreement with supermarkets not to throw food out but to give it it him to sell at greatly reduced prices to poor and elderly folks. I was greatly inspired. I myself don’t have the resources to organize this but why doesn’t someone in every city have such a store — or stores, in every neighborhood?

    A law mandating not wasting food would be wonderful!!!!

  • badphairy

    Well, no. Because it’s a Catch-22. US portion sizes are so big that “cleaning your plate” just adds more people to the “OMG the West is SO OBESE lists”. There is no winning.

    It took me YEARS to learn to guiltlessly throw away food I shouldn’t be eating, because early training at the Clean Plate Club. Before we just make it “shameful” how about putting together a reliable green food recycling program? How about incentivizing Community Supported Agriculture? How about adding a mulch rotator near my building’s garbage cans? How about GETTING U.S. RESTAURANTS TO SERVE HEALTHIER-SIZED PORTIONS, not to mention less salt, saturated fat, etc.

    Turning it into guilting the individual, who often isn’t responsible for the reasons the waste accrues, is just adding to the problem, not solving a damned thing.

  • Amber Catherine Kerr

    Good article… but I feel as though it stops short of telling us how we can bring about this much-needed social change. One conversation at a time, I guess? (You can bet my kids will grow up learning not to waste a scrap!)


Queena Sook Kim

Queena Sook Kim is the Senior Editor of the Silicon Valley Desk. In this role, she covers the intersection of technology and life in the Bay Area. 

Before taking this post, Queena was the host of The California Report. The daily morning show airs on KQED in San Francisco, one of the nation’s largest NPR affiliates, and on 30 stations across the state. In that role, she produces and reports on news, politics and life in the Golden State. Queena likes to take sideways look at the larger trends changing the state. One of her favorite stories asked why Latino journalists “over’pronounce” their Spanish surnames as a way of looking at how immigration is creating a culture shift in California.

Before joining The California Report, Queena was a Senior Reporter covering technology for Marketplace, the daily business show that airs on public radio. Queena covered daily tech business stories and reported on larger technology trends. She did a series of stories looking at role of social engineering in hacking and on a start-up in Silicon Valley that’s trying to use technology, instead of animals, to make meat that bleeds.

Queena started her career as a business journalist at the Wall Street Journal, where she spent four years covering the paper, home building and toy industries. She wrote A1 stories about the unusually aggressive tactics KB Home took against its home buyers. and the resurgence of “Cracker” architecture in Florida. She also wrote section front stories on marketing trends and

As a journalist, Queena has spent much of her career helping start-up editorial products. She was on the founding editorial team of The Bay Citizen, an experimental, online news site in San Francisco that was funded by the late hillbilly billionaire Warren Hellman. In 2009, Queena received a grant from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting to start-up a podcast called CyberFrequencies, which reported on the culture of technology. She also helped start-up two radio shows – Off-Ramp and Pacific Drift – for KPCC, the NPR-affiliate in Los Angeles. Off-Ramp was awarded 1st Place for news and Public Affairs programming by the PRINDI and the L.A. Press club. Queena’s stories have appeared on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, WNYC’s Studio 360, WBUR’s Here and Now, BBC’s Global Perspectives and New York Times’ multimedia page.

In 1994, Queena won a Fulbright Grant to teach and study in Seoul, South Korea. She was also selected to be a Teach For America Corps Member in 1991 and taught elementary school in the Inglewood Unified School District in Southern California.

Queena is a frequent public speaker and has given talks at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, San Francisco State University, PRINDI conference and the Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp. Queena went to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and graduated cum laude from New York University with a B.A. in Politics. She grew up in Southern California and lives in Berkeley, Ca in a big fixer on which she spends most weekends, well, fixing.

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