Taste the Waste

By: Hannah Olson 

Does this sound familiar?

You’re standing in your kitchen about to make a grilled cheese sandwich and you pull a block of cheese from the fridge that has seen better days. You notice a bit of calcium lactate in the corner and mistake it for mold. Instinctively, you toss the cheese in the trash and grab a new package.

It may not seem like a big deal to throw out that block of cheese that is getting a little old. It was only $3.99. Plus, it’s been in the fridge for a couple weeks. The new cheese you just bought at the grocery store today – forgetting you had cheese at home – looks so much nicer.

It’s safer to just throw it out, right?

And next time you’re going to remember to use the cheese sooner, right?


But it’s not just the $3.99 of your own money being wasted.

And it’s not just in your home.

Bit by bit, little by little, the amount of food waste in the United States skyrockets.

In America, food waste is estimated to be between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply. This amount of waste has a far reaching and staggering impact on food security, resource conservation and climate change.

Viable food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills. The land, water, labor and energy used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing and disposing of discarded food were for naught.

Food waste, which is the largest component composing landfills, quickly generates methane, helping to make landfills the third largest source of methane in the United States and leading to climate change.

Money that is spent on food that goes straight to the garbage could be spent in better ways both on a corporate level and in consumer homes.

Food waste has become a staggering problem, but because it happens in little bits in so many areas, everyone is able to think to themselves, “‘Oh, I’m not the problem.’”

It’s easy to put the blame on others, but is it really the case?

In the following stories, some unique Ames residents delve into the why and how of food waste. Each of these individuals are taking actions on a personal level to help to combat a global problem.

Noah’s Story (Dumpster Diving)

Noah, an Iowa State alum, saw restaurant waste firsthand and is now taking an unconventional approach to combating food waste –– dumpster diving.

Noah began dumpster diving a few years ago as a way to save on food costs, help the environment and be a bit rebellious.

Initially, dumpster diving may seem off putting for a number of reasons –– it’s generally illegal, could be unsafe and just plain gross.

“Hey you wanna go dive through the Panera dumpsters?’

‘That sounds disgusting,’ but then like I thought about it and actually I know how clean that bread is when it goes in those dumpsters –– actually totally, yeah!”

Noah has been on both sides of the battlefield. His first job was at Panera Bread, a restaurant where he now frequently dumpster dives. As an employee at Panera, he was bothered by the amount of food he saw that was still edible, but thrown away.

Centralized chain-restaurant management can make it harder to avoid food waste. Although chain restaurants have advanced software for inventory planning, there is often a lack of flexibility at the individual restaurant level that prevents local managers from reusing food in creative ways.

Also, fast-food outlets often must adhere to strict time limits. For example, McDonald’s fries must be thrown out after seven minutes and burgers after 20 minutes. These time limits cause approximately 10 percent of all fast-food to be discarded, according to a 2005 study from the University of Arizona.

Panera Bread in particular prides themselves in claiming they donate their unused food every night. This is true up to a point.

According to Noah, they donate all of their unsliced bread to charity every night, but that leaves sometimes bags worth of perfectly good sliced bread that gets thrown away.

Many restaurants fear repercussions of donating food in case people get sick. This is an unvalidated fear because the law protects businesses from lawsuits donating food in good faith.

Another reason why many businesses don’t donate is that it often costs much more to donate the food than to just throw it away, due to packaging and delivery.

“Occasionally you’ll get like cookies and stuff that are past their expiration date – but those cookies are so packed full of preservatives and stuff they are going to be good for another 20 years anyways, so who cares?”

“I have higher standards for my dumpster foods –– so I’m not going for like the questionable stuff. If I think it’s like even remotely close to gross I’m like no thank you –– I’ll take the boxed cookies or the bread or whatever.”

Small disclaimer: ignoring safety and cleanliness, dumpster diving is for the most part, illegal.

Most dumpsters are on private property, so the charge is generally trespassing. There is also the issue of who actually owns the garbage in the dumpsters.

Noah says he has never gotten in any sort of trouble for dumpster diving, but says, “I can imagine an employee wouldn’t be very happy to come out and see us digging around in the dumpsters.”

Dumpster diving can also be considered unsafe, however, unsafe is a relative term.

Sure, food could be unsafe because it has touched things in the dumpster that have been contaminated, or exposed to bacteria from raccoons, but for the most part, food thrown away due to ‘sell by’ dates, won’t actually hurt you.

“I think I’m immune to most chicken related food borne illnesses now,” Noah said laughing.

Dumpster diving is pretty prevalent in Ames, which can lead to territorial dumpster divers.

“There’s a lot of dumpster divers– you’ve got to get in there before someone else comes and takes the good stuff,” he said.

Some people are using this as their main source of food, whereas Noah is just using it as a supplement to his diet. Dumpster divers don’t just find themselves fighting for food from other divers– vermin is also a competitor. “Sometimes you have to compete with the raccoons too,” he said laughing.

While not encouraging everyone try dumpster diving, Noah hopes that people will be more conscious about where their food is going, how much they are throwing away.

Patty’s Story (Food at First)  Patty Yoder

In the basement of First Christian Church, you’ll find Food at First, the best food pantry in the Midwest – according to an award bestowed by Walmart – stocked to the brim with ‘gleamed’ food. Working tirelessly in that food pantry, you’ll also find Patty Yoder.

She has always loved cooking and helping people, and 13 years ago when Food at First was just starting out, Patty knew she had to help, even though she herself was struggling to make ends meet.

Patty had just gone through a divorce that had left her alone and with little money, but she was determined to volunteer to cook a meal for Food at First.

These days she is remarried, paid a salary as the Food at First director and her passion for helping others has only grown stronger.

“I’d give them all my money, but I think my husband would get mad at me,“ she said.

Food at First obtains most of their food from local businesses who give them food left from the day that didn’t sell, or food that is nearing its expiration date.

They have regular pick-ups at both of the Ames Hy-Vee locations, Aldi, Sam’s Club and Chipotle.

Food at First volunteers pickup, transport and prepare the food, which eliminates a lot of the extra effort which could otherwise bar companies from donating.

The pantry serves to eliminate food waste as well as serve a need for food in the Ames community.

Many people incorrectly assume that if they donate and someone gets sick, they could get sued. However, since the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, that is not the case. The act was created to encourage the donation of food and grocery products to qualified non-profit organizations and provides liability protection to food donors.

“If someone is helping someone by donating food, nothing can come back on them. With that law, it was like the floodgates opened,” she explained.

Jake’s Story (Dumpster Diving) Jake Helgerson

Jake Helgerson came to Iowa State with dreams of ending world hunger.

In his senior year, his outlook was a bit more cynical.

Jake has seen food waste on different ends of the production cycle and encountered many solutions combating it. He started school as an Agronomy major hoping to learn how he could help solve the global food waste problem. For a few months, he volunteered at Food at First.

Now he dumpster dives regularly to supplement his diet and sees firsthand the amount of perfectly good food thrown away by businesses. He was initially blown away by the sheer amount of waste.

“It’s so staggering that it’s fucking dumb. There’s all this food lying around,” he said.

Jake thinks that most people think of dumpster diving as unsanitary.

“It’s a lot less gross than I think you think it is,” he said.

Jake blames much of America’s food waste problem on consumerism and Americans’ desire for their food to not just taste good, but look good.

He said his revelation occurred when he started to think of grocery stores as businesses and not just food repositories.


​”I think food culture in America is kind of like a weakened immune system,” said Jake. He thinks unlike countries that have strong cultural ties to food, like Italy, America doesn’t have a strong history of cuisine. Jake thinks since the U.S. doesn’t have a strong traditional diet, people are more susceptible to being swayed by glamorized corporate food ads telling them, “Hey! This is what you should be eating!”

“It’s so much easier to buy into Hamburger Helper. Since there’s not a tradition to fall back on, it’s easier to listen to advertising,” he said.

Jake became discouraged after taking classes on world food issues. He realized that it’s not that enough food to feed everyone isn’t being produced, but that the food just isn’t reaching people who need it.

“It felt like the purpose of choosing that major had been swept out from underneath me.”

Food waste occurs at many different points during food production and consumption –– in the home, on farms, in retail stores and in restaurants.

According to the USDA, households and food service operations –– which includes restaurants, cafeterias, fast food, and caterers –– together lost 86 billion pounds of food in 2008, or 19 percent of the total U.S. retail-level food supply.

Approximately 4 to 10 percent of food purchased by restaurants becomes kitchen loss, both edible and inedible, before reaching the consumer.

Another significant portion of food is served but never eaten.

Other drivers of waste in food service include large portions, inflexibility of chain-store management and pressure to maintain enough food supply to offer extensive menu choices at all times.

All in all, Jake thinks the prevalence stems from, “a lot of people saying they’re not the problem.”

Paige’s Story (Vegetarianism) Paige Vander Leest

When Paige Vander Leest began to working as an intern with Live Green! at Iowa State, she quickly began to notice all of the aspects of her life that were negatively impacting the environment.

One of them? Eating meat.

This past year, she made the switch to vegetarianism for environmental reasons.

While it sometimes is difficult, she does it knowing she’s reducing food waste and eating food better for the environment and her body. She said that sometimes she craves pepperoni pizza, but vegetarianism isn’t terribly hard because, “I just fucking love vegetables,” she explained.

Imagine you’ve just ordered a burger at a restaurant. You take a few bites, decide that wasn’t actually what you were hungry for, and throw it away.

Consider all that went into that burger.

The Water Footprint Network did the math for the amount of resources that go into the production of a single burger, and it’s shocking.

For a quarter pound burger:

     -13.5 pounds of animal feed

     -64.5 square feet of land

     -460 gallons of water

Now, just imagine all of those resources being put into a burger that was ultimately just thrown in the trash.

It can make vegetarianism sound pretty appealing. Vander Leest never thought that she would be one to quit eating meat. After learning more about the negative environmental effects of the meat industry she said to herself, “‘Okay, well let’s just give it a go’, realizing that it was something small I could do to make a difference, and if everyone does something small it can make a big difference.”

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