Baby Boomers and Seniors:  Stop Throwing Away Your Food

Two-Part Blog on Reducing Food Waste and Cutting Your Costs

And What Exactly is “Shrinkflation”

The marvels of fully stocked shelves at your local grocery. Photo by Matheus Cenali (Pexels)

Chapter 2 of 2.  The Analysis and the End Point

In my previous blog, I shared quite a bit of information on the research behind “date-on” and “best if used before” food labelling.  I would prefer not to reiterate all that material as an intro to this blog, so kindly page back to last week’s blog so you can reread.  

This week, I am planning to describe the fallacies of most of the date labelling you find on food in today’s groceries and supermarkets, and how to protect yourself and reduce your food costs at the same time.  Again, my thanks to VOX News for their profound interest in this subject and allowing me to quote some of their findings.

It comes down to this, is it truly a matter of food not being edible and/or safe if it falls outside the date stamp on the packaging?  The problem is food waste and what to do about it. 

“Imagine walking out of a grocery store with four bags of groceries, dropping one in the parking lot, and just not bothering to pick it up.  That’s essentially what we’re doing.”

Dan Gunders

Checking out the “date on” labels of food products. Photo by Kampus Production (Pexels)

Did you know, some states prohibit grocery stores from donating or selling out-of-date foods to food banks and other services designed to help those living with food insecurity. The thinking is reasonable, even altruistic: Why would we give sub-par food to the “poor”? In other words, if I wouldn’t eat “expired” food, why would I give it to others? Distributors fear legal threats if someone eats past-dated food and becomes ill (something that has rarely happened, but it’s still a looming threat).

That’s exacerbated by the way Americans shop. Think about it: How often do you see a shelf or bin or freezer in a grocery store that isn’t fully stocked to the brim? Supermarkets stock more food than they can sell, and that’s on purpose, it’s common practice for supermarkets to plan for “shrink” — food they expect to be wasted. We may not even realize it, but we’ve trained ourselves to see full crates of beets and shelves of salad dressing as a sign that the store is good, and therefore the food in it is good. Abundance indicates quality.

“But that mindset naturally, even inevitably, leads to waste. In many places, if you can’t sell all your milk by the sell-by date, you have to dump it. Consumers don’t want to buy a box of Cheez-Its that only has a week left on it. Beef that ‘expires’ in two days is not going to fly off the shelves. And if you can’t sell all your carrots, some of those carrots are going to start getting a little bendy. And many grocery stores will only sell produce that’s up to a certain aesthetic standard — no weird-looking apples or sweet potatoes from outer space, everything the same shape and size. Furthermore, if a manufacturer changes the label on their cookie packages, all the old packages will probably just be discarded to maintain uniformity.”

Most of the decisions that are made about most of the foods that we eat are made for reasons that have nothing to do with the food’s deliciousness or its healthiness or anything intrinsic to the food, unless of course the food is disfigured due to the way it grew in the field or somewhat dried out on the ends, such as can happen with celery.  Or is it really?  What is wrong with this food other than the negative perception of the consumer.

Some businesses have cropped up to try to fix this larger-scale problem, like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods. They form relationships with producers to rescue aesthetically “ugly” food — or at least, food we’ve been trained to think is ugly or too small or too large — and sell it to customers. They also buy food that’s approaching its label date and resell it to customers, hoping to cut down on food waste and change the way people eat. “It’s all about breaking down misconceptions,” Imperfect Foods’ associate creative director, Reilly Brock said. “Food is not Cinderella. It’s not going to turn back into a pumpkin by midnight if it reaches the date on the label.”

But across the country, the standard practice for your average American consumer still stands. Make a big trip to the grocery store to buy your food from the glossy displays. When food expires, throw it out. Meanwhile, farmers are plowing ugly produce back into the ground or letting it rot in the field, and stores are chucking food that’s near or past its date into the garbage because there’s nowhere else they can send it.

Can we change this?

The follow-up data to a 2013 Harvard study found that standardizing the date labeling system across the country — rather than leaving it to more local governments to address in a scattershot fashion — could be incredibly beneficial to the economy and to consumers. Enacting standardized legislation, it estimates, could prove to be an economic value of about $1.8 billion to the US economy. What’s more, an estimated 398,000 tons of food waste would be diverted to actually feed people, instead of sitting in landfills.

The very sad commentary of food waste in our landfills across the world. Photo by Stijn Dijkstra (Pexels)

“Quite a bit has happened in the years since this study. Seeing the problem, two major associations (the Consumer Brands Association and the Food Marketing Institute) put together a working group to design a standard date label that would work for both businesses and consumers. They came up with a ‘best if used by’ label for a quality date and ‘use by’ for a safety date. If a food won’t decrease in safety but might decrease in quality, the manufacturer would use the “best if used by” label; if it might become unsafe to eat, they would stick on the “use by” label. That system corresponds roughly to a standard used in many other countries.

And until there’s a better solution, the best thing we can do is try to educate ourselves and change the way we shop for food.

Perhaps we need a public health program to educate people about what’s safe to eat. The UK has done a series of campaigns toward that end, with the slogan “Look, Smell, Taste, Don’t Waste,” in which it partnered with industry to help people understand when to keep their food and when to toss it.

“Another aspect and one more socially conscious would be changing the way we allow food to be donated and distributed through food banks and other means. If everyone is eating food past its “freshness” date — understanding that the food is perfectly safe but may not be at its absolute peak condition — then there will be less hesitancy about giving that food away, and less fear about the possibility of facing legal repercussions. That could have a huge impact on hunger and food insecurity in the US. 

“Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry”

Pope Francis

But that means we each need to rethink how we interact with food. We need to start trusting our senses to tell us if food is edible. 

And in my case, that means I’m going to start sniffing what’s in my refrigerator before I chuck it — and maybe even turning it into lunch.

And one more thing, lest we forget the magic word, “shrinkflation.”  I promised I would share my thoughts on this subject, so here they are.

An example of shrinkflation: the same product, but today you get far less for the exact same price.

Have you noticed lately the contents of your bag of chips are no more ½ the volume of the bag and grocery items that you once bought are now in a smaller container but at the same price as they were in the larger packaging.  Have you noticed your toilet rolls getting smaller, manufacturers have been covertly inserting larger cardboard tubes reducing the amount of paper but still charging the same price.  Welcome to the world of shrinkflation, or more commonly known as the process of items shrinking in size or quantity while their prices remain the same or increase.  The term was actually coined about a decade ago by Pippa Malmgren, a portmanteau of the words shrink and inflation.

The cause, well it’s economics baby.  Primarily fueled by higher labor and production costs along with increases in the cost of ingredients and raw materials profit margins have been declining.  What do manufacturers do, reduce the size and charge the same or slightly higher and thus maintain or boost profit margins.  It’s all about the $$$.

Unfortunately, inflation is also contributing to higher food costs. Photo by Ibrahim Boran (Pexels)

Personally, I have found examples of shrinkflation in virtually every corner of food and beverage businesses here in southern California, even at farmer’s markets where they traditionally charge by the weight (e.g. pound), it is now a pound + some dollar factor.  For example, what was once a quantity of produce for $4.00/pound is now $5.00 per pound, or an increase of 25%.  A small example, but noteworthy nonetheless.

So, as Boomers and Seniors, what are we to do with all this information.  Well, first off, I’m pleased to share it with you for its educational value.  I have often been perplexed by the date labelling issue and now have a much clearer understanding of what it all means.  

I happened to find a bag of crinkle chips stuffed in one of my pantries that had a date label of January 21, 2021.  As of today, that bag of chips is over 7 months past its label date.  In the past, I might have thrown it out, because I was the obedient servant to the label.  But I opened the bag and the chips were still fresh and crisp.  I just saved some money and was delightfully surprised.  What’s a BoomerGal to do?

While I pay close attention to date labelling on most dairy products, I still use my eyes and nose to act as my filter for whether to keep any food or not.  Over the past years, my food waste bill was quite high, but now it’s my gain.  I use my freezer more often to save leftovers, I repurpose marginal dairy and vegetables for my next meal and watch my shopping habits especially in light of shrinkflation.

Bottom line, I use my garbage disposal a whole lot less these days and I put out my purple food waste can once a month now, as opposed to once a week.  I can’t tell you specifically how much I save by minimizing food waste, but my eyes and nose tell me it’s quite a bit.  

And the best news, I’m happy about it.  That’s what we’re all about here at BoomerGal, sending inspiration and doing something about what we learn.

If we all do our part in minimizing food waste, we’re all winners.  

Hey Boomers, it’s the Labor Day Holiday fast approaching, share your memories with friends and family and be sure to share all that wonderful food.

Photo by Askar Abayev (Pexels)

Thank you to the exceptional editorial contribution 

by VOX News, Alissa Wilkinson

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