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Food waste: A collision of environmentalism, mental health

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HUGO KWOK | STAFF

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OCTOBER 19, 2022

Content warning: eating disorders

Think of the time you reached into the fridge, pulled out a moldy head of lettuce and sent it directly to the trash. Or when you catch a whiff of the takeout box forgotten in the back corner and put it straight into the dumpster. On a larger scale, consider the food that you, or anyone else for that matter, don’t buy at a grocery store that goes bad. These are just a few instances of the generation of food waste.

Food waste, which contributes to 8% of all global emissions, is a problem that climate activists, politicians, grocery stores and even households have been grappling with as a serious contributor to global warming. In the United States, 30% to 40% of the food supply ends up as waste. In California, this compiles to6 million tons of food annually that end up in a landfill.

These numbers are daunting, and may immediately raise red flags, warning bells and a need to begin a zero waste lifestyle. And yes, it’s important for individuals to be cognizant of the amount of organics they’re sending out with the trash each day. However, is there a point where the emphasis on food waste at the household level can do more harm than good?

We’re constantly inundated with content about our individual role in stopping climate change, how each person has the power to end such a global crisis. This societal pressure is misplaced in its blame solely on the people and can even be harmful to mental health.

Turning back to food waste, I can recall countless instances of summer camps, lunchrooms and school trips where there was enforced competition between tables on who could produce the least amount of food waste at the end of a meal. Seems harmless, just a fun activity to get kids to be conscientious of what they are and are not eating.

Now as I look back on this fun “game,” it’s ironic to see its detrimental effects. How is it beneficial to encourage children to either underfeed themselves or overeat in the name of less food waste? In this framework, the discussion of food waste may facilitate the development of eating disorders from a young age.

I have spent the past two years at war with my relationship with food. Tell me that the global problem of food waste is preventable at the individual level, and well, I just won’t put anything on my plate. I like to think that my own eating disorder didn’t have its seeds planted in me through experiences of being forced to finish my servings at summer camp or during so called “slop bucket” competitions on school retreats. But when I serve myself a minimal portion at a meal just to know that I will finish it without guilt, without the full body panic that overcomes me when I eat “too much,” I sense that these formational experiences with food waste still hold a power over me that I cannot seem to shake.

I’m not suggesting ignoring food waste as a category of devastating effects on the environment. I’m not contradicting the essentiality of individual actions in the fight against global warming. Being involved in the fight against a truth about the future of our planet that many people in power still choose to ignore has taught me that there’s space for mental and bodily wellness to take precedence.

The imposed shame of having an eating disorder has been paralyzing, even isolating. Our social institutions have stigmatized eating disorders as a personally mishandled relationship with food, while simultaneously promoting and capitalizing on diets, exercise and body image.

Ideas around food waste, as well as many other contributors to carbon emissions, have been similarly posited by social structures. Pressure is put on individuals to single-handedly stop the climate crisis, when a study by the Carbon Disclosure Project found that just 100 corporations contribute to 71% of total global emissions.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 11% of total food waste comes from households. Eleven percent. Our institutions contribute to children’s detrimental eating habits instead of turning their resources to eradicate the emissions of coal manufacturing plants.

I’m not saying that you should stop all of the individual efforts you take to reduce your carbon footprint because they do add up.  I’m saying to be aware of the lack of accountability on corporations, industries and the abundance of pressure placed on the people in ending the climate crisis. It’s okay for you to avoid pushing your body past its limits, your mental and physical wellness can and should be allowed to take precedence.

Contact Zoe Campion at 

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OCTOBER 19, 2022