The current pandemic has forced many of us to re-evaluate our spending habits. Whether you need to buy more to make fewer grocery runs or buy less to make ends meet, most of us have had to make some changes. We’ve also had to take a closer look at how much food we can store, how long our storage capacity lasts us, and how much food we waste in the process.
If you haven’t yet made this evaluation, I strongly recommend it. You might be amazed at how much food you throw out and how much money you could save if you didn’t. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans waste up to 40% of the food we buy. Waste happens not just at the consumer levels, but also at the retail levels.
In 2010 alone, Americans wasted $161 billion dollars on food. That worked out to roughly 133 billion pounds of food heading straight to landfills. How much of that do you think came from your home? How much do you think you’ve been wasting now in the 2020 era of panic buying?
Third World Benchmark
Jamaica is a developing nation. This puts it a step behind developed countries, like America, and a step ahead of underdeveloped countries, like Haiti. This means that anything you find in America, you can usually find in Jamaica: from tech to food. However, because we import so much of our food, it is often way more expensive than what it costs overseas.
Coupled with a low minimum wage and equally low GDP, many of us know firsthand what it’s like to miss a few meals: not because we want to fit into a dress or feel too lazy to cook, but because we have to. Consequently, we do whatever we can to not waste food.
With this goal in mind, we use whatever we have in our fridges and cupboards and take advantage of foods growing in our yards. These are just some of the foods that grow naturally on my family’s property in Jamaica:
- Capsicum pepper
We may not necessarily grow hungry when living outside the big cities, but we might not always get the foods we want when we want them. I’m starting to realise, though, that this isn’t always a bad thing.
First World Comparison
Life in America is the exact opposite. There isn’t a single edible plant on my property here and we get all our foods from the grocery stores. Even so, food is cheap and the salaries are high, compared to Jamaica. When I walk into Kroger, I can walk out with whatever I want. Unfortunately, this is sometimes to my detriment — and probably yours, too.
Have you ever gone to the store, seen something you want and not be able to remember if you have any at home or not? So, you figure why not buy it? Then, you come home and find out you did this two grocery trips in a row and now you have two pounds of bad food in the refrigerator. What about leftovers you forgot about or canned goods that sat there for years and expired?
In fact, if you are like most people living in America, you are probably guilty of one or more of the following:
- You keep about $102 worth of food in the fridge all year round.
- You toss out about $54 worth of spoiled food each week.
- You end up throwing out about 103 pounds of food per year.
- Too often, your perishables tend to perish before you get to them.
My Eye-Opening Experiment
As the coronavirus caseloads worsen and death rates increase in Georgia, I reduced my trips outside of the home even more. Instead of running off to Kroger every week to get groceries, I now try to make it to two weeks and have even made it to three, once before. These longer stretches led to some very disturbing realisations for me, which ultimately inspired this article.
I find that one of the biggest reasons I waste food is the fact that there are so many options. In Jamaica, I would decide what kind of meals I wanted for the week and plan accordingly. I don’t have to make that choice in America. Right now, I have three different types of teas in my cupboards. Side dishes? Well, I have potatoes, mac n cheese, fancy rice, regular rice, tacos, canned corn, frozen corn, string beans … I could go on and on.
To most Americans, this might not seem strange at all. Well, of course, you have all these things, so you can make a choice when you’re ready to make your meals! If you are a picky eater or have picky eaters in the house, having an open buffet of groceries at home might feel even more necessary. But, as several studies now show, an embarrassingly high portion of all that food ends up in landfills.
So, what exactly was the main finding of my little experiment? When I shop weekly, I spend anywhere from around $80 to $120 per week on food. If this seems high for a single person, consider that I am a pescetarian who buys a lot of organic foods. Would you like to guess how much money I spend on food when I shop once every two weeks?
Anywhere from around $80 to $120 every two weeks.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Can you believe that all I had to do to cut my grocery bill in half was to go to the store half as often? Now, I might have to drink peppermint tea instead of hot cocoa every once in a while or use Swiss cheese instead of cheddar, but we don’t need to have exactly what we want all the time just because we can.
Food’s Role in Minimalism
Let’s go back in time to my life in Jamaica. One spring morning in 2015, I woke up and had had enough. I texted one of my friends and said, “I’m going to quit my job before the end of the year. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I will. I’m tired of this.”
I then met up with several travellers from around the world who came to Jamaica. I asked each one of them how they found the time and means to travel so often and so far on modest incomes. The answer was almost always the same: minimalism.
Not every single person said the actual word minimalism, but they all spoke about the importance of having less stuff. I took that advice to heart. Every Sunday afternoon, I would get a big garbage bag and walk around my apartment, looking for things to throw away or give away.
By the time June 30th 2015 came around, I was able to give up my home and fit everything I had into three suitcases and a laptop bag. I then started a cross-island adventure with friends before coming to America to continue my gap year plans. That gap year never really ended, and now, I live here.
For the record, I am no hardcore minimalist who counts all her possessions and has zero clutter in her home. But, I do live minimally. My home, after all, is only 628 SF: a matchbox by First World standards. Even so, it’s ironic how food never made it into my minimalist plans.
I think that because food is a necessary item, we make peace with spending and wasting money on it. Justifying a purchase is even easier when you’re buying a pound of organic squashes instead of another cup of Starbucks coffee.
Yet, the effect on your budget is the same and the waste it creates is much worse. At least, there’s a pretty big chance you’ll drink that cup of coffee you bought before work. But, do you really plan to make that squash casserole you saw on Pinterest or is it the landfill that will get to taste your good intentions?
I’m sure many of you have already thought deeply about the money you waste on food and might even already be on your way to fixing it. Sadly, too many of us think the answer is coupons and buying in bulk. If you haven’t already seen buying less or less often as a viable option, there’s no time like the present to give it a try.
In the meantime, what delicious foods have your garbage cans stolen from your fridge lately? Or, have you tightened up your food spending already? Share your food waste confessions in the comments, below!