Level IV. Down with Food Waste

At this point you know how to choose nutrient rich foods, how to balance your diet and eat well. You know where to obtain healthful foods, and you are aware of the systemic changes that need to be made to improve health: yours, everyone's, the planet's. So there are only a few more issues relative to your day-to-day food decisions that may need to be leveled up. One is regarding your contribution to food waste, the other is the concept of food justice.

Food waste can be readily defined as the edible material that never makes it into our mouths. Food waste occurs everywhere, all over the world, in the fields and the markets, in the factories and our homes. Food that is wasted is contributing to energy overuse, and it is impacting climate change. This makes food waste doubly wasteful. And food packaging made with plastic compounds the problem. Fortunately, there are some simple things we can do to help reduce our contributions to food waste.

Food justice is a vague term that encompasses the systemic unfairness in the production and distribution of the world's food supply. Issues we will touch on here include the poor treatment of farmworkers and food production workers. Hunger is also a matter of food justice because we produce enough food to feed the world, yet almost 10% of the world's people do not have enough to eat. The poor treatment of farm animals has already been covered in Level III, but can also be regarded as an aspect of food justice.

The way we think about our food can be an expression of the respect we have for life. How we eat is one way of showing our love for ourselves, all of humanity, the environment and the planet. For this reason, we think these issues are worth considering as you level up your nutrition.

The Trouble with Food Waste

In 2019, around 35% of all the food in the US went unsold or uneaten. This added up to more than 200 billion dollars tossed into landfills, sucked down drains, or left in crop fields to rot. This is like throwing out billions of meals every single year! The data for 2020 is undoubtedly more severe due to the negative influence of the pandemic. Much of the food waste in the US happens at home, and we were all at home a lot more than we normally are.

In 2019, an estimated 1 out of every 8 Americans was food insecure. This proportion rose sharply during the pandemic when people lost jobs and were trapped at home without income. Farmworkers and food production staff were forced to continue working so that the rest of us could eat. Many farmworkers and food factory workers have no health insurance, no paid sick days, and no help when they fall ill. Deemed "essential" workers at the start of the public health crisis in 2020, they had to don masks and work side by side, risking their lives until vaccines were made available.

Meanwhile, we were throwing out food.

Meanwhile, some of us had no food to throw out.

One way this unfair food system imbalance can be addressed is through transferring all of the uneaten food, good food that will be wasted, to the food insecure. There are businesses around the country that work to retrieve food at farms, production sites, and grocery stores for redistribution to food banks and feeding programs. Volunteers pick fresh fruits from neighborhood trees to share with those in need. Trucks pick up leftovers from restaurants and markets, driving the food to shelters and soup kitchens. In this way, unsold fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, legumes and other items are not wasted but used to feed the hungry. This seems like a simple solution to a big problem, but the systems required to make this happen involve regulation hurdles and complex logistics. The people who do this work are unsung heroes.

Prevention would be a much easier way to address food waste. Our agricultural system is extremely wasteful and, as you know from Level III, detrimental to the environment. The food supply chain is delicate and easily upset, resulting in immense food waste. For example, at the start of the pandemic, animals that were ready for slaughter were dumped by the thousands when meat production slowed in factories hard hit by the virus. And there were food shortages when millions of shoppers all rushed to stock up at once. The food system couldn't keep up. It didn't break down, but it could have.

Obviously, the food supply chain needs work. The system should be revamped so that unwanted food goes directly to those in need. An array of nonprofits and other small businesses are making this happen around the country, so it's not impossible. Their methods could be streamlined and built right into our food production system. That way, the two issues—food waste and food insecurity—could be addressed at once.

Prevention of food waste and the associated environmental costs could also be addressed during harvest, distribution, and production. Food that is unsightly could be rescued at the farm or production plant for transfer to businesses that can make use of "ugly" fruits and vegetables. Who needs a perfect banana in their smoothie? Who needs a perfect looking stalk of asparagus in their soup? Stale bread can be made into a delightful beer. So much of what we grow and don't use can be composted, used on farms in place of damaging fertilizers.

Again, these solutions seem obvious, but in most cases such options are not being incorporated into our food production system. And they must, if we are to significantly reduce food waste and the impact of our agricultural system on the environment. Because the food that is never eaten still uses resources to grow, harvest, transport, and prepare it. This means wasted energy, along with the wasted food. And food left to rot emits greenhouse gases, contributing even more to the negative impact on climate by our food system.

If you are wondering what you can do to participate, you can try to become more aware of what foods you buy, how much you are using, and what you tend to throw out. Try to buy only what you will definitely use, and find creative ways to avoid or recycle any leftovers. Blenders can be helpful in this regard, as can homemade soups, stews, and one-pot dishes. Bring uneaten food home after dining out rather than allowing servers to throw it out. The foods most commonly wasted are perishables like fresh produce, meats, fish and seafood, milk and dairy products. Also bakery products, which get stale. You can be especially aware of the perishables you buy and have on hand so that you can use them before it's too late.

That said, we as individual consumers can only do so much. The complex food system that feeds the globe needs to make big changes in order for food waste to be cut significantly. This is a responsibility best addressed by new food-related policies at the federal, state, and municipal levels. Food corporations must take full responsibility for their contributions to the problem of food waste, as well as their outsized environmental footprints.

photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The Trouble with Food Packaging

The trouble with food packaging is very simple. Most of it is plastic and much of it is not recyclable. Or if it is deemed to be recyclable, nothing is actually done with it once you've recycled it. So it might as well not be recyclable. Even making the plastic creates pollution because it is manufactured as a byproduct of fracking, the process of removing fossil fuels from the ground. A process which pollutes soil, water, and air. Our packaging might as well be called frackaging!

Plastic is everywhere now but it is a relatively new material. First created from chemicals in a laboratory in 1907, "Bakelite" was the earliest form of plastic. Created to be durable, flexible, heat and moisture resistant, plastic has been synthesized in laboratories since the 1950s. Made from chemicals called polymers, modern forms of plastic can be modified to serve a variety of functions. Unfortunately, plastic is not biodegradable. It does not break down completely so it is clogging up our waterways, polluting the ocean, and sitting in landfills, where it will remain for decades, perhaps forever.

You might not know this but almost all of the packaging you find on your food—in stores, vending machines, restaurant takeout, and in your kitchen—is made from some form of plastic. Review the following summary to see what we mean:

PET: one of the most common forms of plastic, typically strong and transparent; used for beverage bottles, water bottles and jugs, food jars
HDPE: resistant to moisture; used for milk cartons, cereal box liners
LDPE: flexible form of plastic; used for beverage cartons, plastic wrap, sandwich bags
PP (polypropylene): used to make straws, hot food containers
Styrofoam (polystyrene): used to make cups, takeout containers, egg cartons

Plastic is also used in many, many other products from construction and furnishings to automobiles and computers, clothing and appliances, baby bottles and diapers. Plastic is everywhere! And since it doesn't break down completely, and is often readily disposed of, it has seeped into the natural environment. Tiny plastic remnants called microplastic can be found in our waterways and soil, in the water we drink and the food we eat, in the bodies of marine and animal life, and in our bodies. This is not reassuring.

Some forms of plastic have been deemed recyclable. Unfortunately, only around 9% of the more than 9 billion tons of plastic produced by the world since 1950 has actually been recycled. The rest is still around, polluting the environment. Much of the plastic waste comes from discarded packaging material—including food packaging. Single use water bottles, takeout containers, and plastic shopping bags all contribute to the problem. The US creates the most plastic waste of any country in the world.

Fortunately, scientists and environmentalists are working hard to find ways to address the problems caused by plastic. Researchers are working on biodegradable substances that can be safely substituted for plastics. Some interesting possibilities include plastic-like materials made from:

Research is also being done on potential methods for removing plastic from the environment.

In the meantime, it would help if we didn't continuously add to the problem of plastic waste. So, is there anything we can do to cut back on plastic use? Yes, of course. Here are a few suggestions for you to consider.

If you grow your own food, then you can harvest it into wooden boxes or straw baskets to bring right into the kitchen for immediate use. This is the way we used to get our food. Who needed plastic when you could get your milk from glass bottles, water from the steel pump, and food from the back yard?

But that was then and this is now, a time of centralized industrialized food production and a populace dependent on that.

Zero Waste Hacks

There are a number of changes you can make in your life that will reduce your waste quotient and lighten up your garbage footprint. Here are some simple hacks, starting in the kitchen.

Trash is the physical manifestation of our wastefulness. We pay to own stuff, then we pay to have it hauled away when we're done with it. By separating out the food waste, keeping it out of the garbage can, you can reduce the number of garbage bags you lug to the curb. In fact, without rotting food, wastebaskets do not need to be emptied as often. Depending on the number of persons in a household, trash can be limited to a weekly garbage bag. Or less.

The majority of your food scraps can be composted. There are many online resources that can teach you how to do this. The process is simple, not expensive or time consuming. Some cities provide food waste bins and pick up the scraps. All US cities should offer this service.

Food waste does add up. Amounts can be reduced by avoiding impulse food purchases and overbuying. No single-serving coffee, bottled water, or the like. Filter your tap water, and utilize reusable containers. Keep in mind how it is better to shop more often for perishable foods than to overstock and allow fresh foods to go to waste.

Plan menus in advance. Cook meals at home. Avoid restaurants that over-package takeout. Frequent your local farmer's markets and join a farm delivery program (CSA) in your area. As you already know, these are the kinds of options that will help improve your eating habits and health. In addition to cutting back on food waste, buying wisely can reduce your food bills.

Americans dump more than 7 pounds of trash per person per day. That's a lot of garbage heading for overcrowded landfills. Amounts are double what we dumped as recently as 1960. The US economy has become linked to cheap disposables. Credit-based, we have developed a consumer system in which we spend little for our goods but continue to pay off the debt, even after what we've purchased is already in the trash. This makes no sense. In fact, it's dangerously stupid—and wildly unsustainable.

An estimated $50 billion worth of goods is trashed annually. Since we are running out of room in US landfills, trash has become our leading export. We send our waste overseas, paying other countries to dispose of it. This includes the toxic waste products we cannot, by law, trash here in the US. Such pollutants are dumped elsewhere, in countries where residents are not protected by strict environmental standards for health and safety. How fair is that?

Our mindless consumption economy needs to be overhauled, changed to a system based on product durability and conservation. Public awareness is already creating gradual change. Buying local is trending for food and other goods. There is increased attention to revitalizing neighborhood economies. Of course there's plenty of work to be done. Congress and city governments need to get involved. Capitalization technology and regulations that encourage change will have to be expanded. What about tax breaks for manufacturers that successfully reduce or reuse packaging? And for corporations that establish take-back programs for products that can be resold?

In the meantime, you can do your part by shopping less often, avoiding unnecessary purchases, and becoming increasingly conscious of what you spend your money on. Ask yourself: Do I need it? How long will it last?

Another option is to do your shopping at secondhand stores. One person's refuse can be your treasured find. Donate your unwanted stuff, or sell it on consignment. If you receive something you know you have no use for, don't be ashamed to re-gift.

Recycling works too, but not as well as we might like to think. The problem is that recycling programs encourage us to consume even more by alleviating consumer guilt, making us feel like we're not being wasteful. Some cities have instituted "pay as you throw" collection systems using bins of different sizes. Residents pay less if they make less garbage. Studies show that people will cut back if their garbage bins are smaller in size. What an easy solution! This is a program every city in the US should consider adopting.

Be on the lookout for ways to do more with less, and ideas for doing more with your trash. Each of these hacks can seem small but if we all do them, they'll begin to add up. The result will be a healthier population living better on a greener planet.

photo by Abukar Sky on Unsplash

Food Justice

In 2020, the pandemic revealed some deep cracks in the US food system. It became clear how much we depend on our food workers, and how poorly treated they are by the system that employs them. This includes food workers in various settings: in the crop fields, in slaughterhouses and packing plants, on factory farms, in grocery stores and restaurants. Despite the important role they play in society, food laborers are the lowest paid and least protected workers in the US.

If you are wondering why this is the case, the answer is simple. Greed breeds this kind of injustice. Lack of care for our fellow humans allows it to continue.

One contributing factor to the problem of food worker injustice is demographics. Most field workers and many working in other areas of food production are undocumented immigrants. Their employers manage to outlaw unions, keep wages low, and avoid protections by using the threat of deportation. Most food workers have not experienced wage increases or improvements in their working conditions despite the massive profits attained by major food corporations. Ironically, many food workers are food insecure, relying on food stamps to help feed themselves and their families. Some have to juggle multiple jobs. The minority have employer health insurance, paid sick leave, and workman's compensation for illness or injury on the job.

In the US, food preparation and service is the lowest paid occupation, followed by farming, then fishing. Field workers are exposed to toxic chemicals, pesticides and herbicides, fertilizer dust. They subsist on low pay with subsidized food from the government, choosing the cheap, ultra-processed foods that lead to poor health. In the food processing plants, injuries are common and covid-19 has been rampant due to a lack of worker protection and because workers must stand shoulder to shoulder during their shifts in factories. In some factory jobs, they are exposed to animal wastes for hours on end. Grocery store workers have to deal with erratic work schedules and low pay. Restaurant workers do as well, their income dependent more on tips than wages. Sick pay is rare, so workers often come in to work when they are ill. This added to the spread of covid-19 during the pandemic.

Over the past decades, the food industry has become super-consolidated with a handful of huge corporate entities taking control of our food system. This imbalance in power helps to keep food workers' wages low, while creating all sorts of dangers for the rest of us. A centralized food system is more vulnerable to pathogens, shortages, and other problems that can mean no food on store shelves—and on our pantry shelves. The use of underpaid and threatened workers has been highly profitable for the food industry. The centralization of our food supply has resulted in worker abuse, widespread food poisonings, disease, injuries and deaths, and other avoidable crises. Obviously, the system is not healthy for any of us, and it's unjust for the most vulnerable.

Speaking of a lack of justice, nobody should have to go hungry in the US. In a nation with the kind of resources we have, this is unnecessary and unjust. Everyone in this country should have enough food to eat. Here, where we thoughtlessly waste so much, food security should be a right. It is a human right after all. But despite decades of federal assistance programs, the US still has a high rate of food insecurity. Widely regarded as "the reluctant welfare state," the US counted some 35 million people suffering from food insecurity, including more than 5 million kids. This was before the pandemic with the ensuing illness, lost jobs, school closures, and premature deaths.

Fortunately, the issues around hunger and food justice are currently receiving much national attention. We can hope that the problems will be addressed soon with improvements in public policy at the federal, state, and municipal levels. A more equitable food system is a labor issue, a human rights issue the US must not ignore.

What can you do to help address food worker injustice? Here are a few hacks you might try.

And what about hunger, is there anything you can do? Well, you can donate food to local programs that feed those in need. Volunteer your time at food banks. Join organizations working to feed people dealing with food insecurity. You can also become active in the food worker justice movement.

Another cool idea is for you to participate in a community food garden or a food forest. These projects help to serve neighborhoods in need while providing volunteer work for people who may feel isolated. Depending on available space, a small garden or a park-size area is transformed into a natural green space devoted to growing plants and trees with edible produce.

The first food forest in the US opened in 1997 in Asheville, NC. After Seattle's Beacon Hill Food Forest received media attention in 2011, the concept caught on. Now there are more than 70 food forests around the US, some on public lands, others on campuses of churches and universities. Hundreds of cities and towns now boast community gardens.

Food forests offer visitors fresh fruit, vegetables, and nuts for free, and some are gleaned to provide produce to local people in need. Both forests and gardens serve as safe gathering spots for neighborhood and city residents. Participation can enhance food literacy, encourage volunteerism, and provide socialization. Food forests naturally help with habitat conservation and watershed management while offering urban canopy and a culture of land stewardship and nature-centered health.

Another place to find ways to help is via food-focused nonprofits. There are quite a few nonprofit organizations working hard to feed those in need or make important changes in the lives of food workers. Check the Resources section at the end of this program for a contact list and links to some of these organizations.


This is the final summary for the Level Up Your Nutrition program. We've kept it short to avoid repetition. Plus, you know what to do now. You're all leveled up! And if you want to know more, there are plenty of resources. We've listed some of them for you in the Resources section which follows the Wrap Up Test.

Note that we understand you might have found Level IV to be more political or philosophical than the other levels. You may disagree with some of what has been presented here. You may disagree with some of the material presented throughout all 4 levels. That's okay, and it's understandable. Nutrition is certainly a controversial subject and we all take our food personally. And food has become increasingly politicized, along with many other aspects of our lives.

However, it is our hope that you will have now decided to level up your nutrition with at least some of the hacks presented in this program. Your choices in this regard will make an important difference in your own health, as well as the health of the troubled food system, our fellow humans, and our beleaguered planet.

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All of the following questions are multiple choice. Select the best answer for each question by clicking on it.

1. Approximately how much of our food goes to waste?
a) 10%
b) 25%
c) 35%
d) most of it
e) none of it

2. What percentage of Americans are food insecure?
a) 1%
b) 10%
c) 12%
d) most of us
e) none of us

3. The best way to address food waste is:
a) ignore it and it will go away
b) avoid buying food in excessive amounts
c) stock up so you won't run out
d) avoid restaurants with large portion sizes
e) buy nonperishable foods only
f) c, d, and e

4. Which kind of food packaging is best for the environment:
a) plastic
b) Styrofoam
c) zip-lock bags
d) bamboo
e) natural fibers
f) d and e

5. Microplastic can be found:
a) in soil, where it creates nutrition for plants
b) in waterways, causing fish kills
c) in food, both plants and animal products
d) in our bodies
e) in microorganisms, making them more resistant to disease
f) only in plastic products
g) b, c, d

6. Alternative packaging to plastics includes:
a) glass bottles
b) stainless steel cutlery
c) paper straws
d) straw baskets
e) all of the above

7. Approximately how much does America waste on trashed goods on an annual basis?
a) very little, most things are recycled
b) a few thousand dollars
c) $50 million
d) $50 billion
e) more than we waste on food

8. Which of the following constitutes a zero waste hack?
a) composting food waste
b) avoiding single-serve coffee pods
c) avoiding single-use plastic bottles
d) joining a CSA
e) shopping at secondhand stores
f) shopping for less overall
g) all of these

9. Which is the lowest paid occupation in the US?
a) food sector workers
b) sanitation workers
c) nutrition educators
d) homecare workers
e) daycare workers

10. Serious issues for US farmworkers include:
a) exposure to toxic chemicals
b) low pay
c) food insecurity
d) no health insurance
e) no paid sick days
f) exposure to covid-19
g) the threat of deportation
h) all of the above

11. Serious issues for food production workers include:
a) danger of injury
b) low pay
c) food insecurity
d) no health insurance
e) no paid sick days
f) exposure to covid-19
g) threat of deportation
h) all of the above

12. Serious issues facing many grocery store workers include:
a) low pay
b) food insecurity
c) no health insurance
d) no paid sick days
e) exposure to covid-19
f) erratic work schedules
g) need to take on more than one job
h) all of the above

13. Serious issues facing many restaurant workers include:
a) need to rely on tips due to very low wages
b) food insecurity
c) no health insurance
d) no paid sick days
e) exposure to covid-19
f) erratic work schedules
g) need to take on more than one job
h) harassment and toxic workplace atmosphere
i) all of the above

14. The social and health problems created by food injustice are due to:
a) the consolidation of the food industry
b) the centralization of the food industry
c) issues with immigration law and practice
d) politics
e) greed
f) lack of attention by consumers
g) lack of needed public policy
h) all of these

15. In order to level up your nutrition, it is essential that you:
a) agree with all of the material presented in Level IV
b) agree with all of the material presented in this program
c) make some changes in the way you think about food
d) make some changes in your food choices
e) pass all the tests with perfect scores
f) c and d
g) all of the above

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