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Give up trays for Lent

| Thursday, February 19, 2015

Still haven’t decided what to give up for Lent? With Ash Wednesday come and gone, the temptation can be to settle for another mediocre, chocolate-less 40 days. But what if this year, your sacrifice had a true impact on your world? What if it battled social ills and the destruction of the planet at the same time as edifying you spiritually? And what if it were also a fairly simple choice? As simple as not using a tray in the dining hall?

Have I lost you? Let’s rewind a bit. A few facts and figures for your reading pleasure:
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a branch of the United Nations, one third of the food produced in the world each year is lost or wasted. One third. That’s 2,600,000,000,000 pounds of waste. Each year.

Right, so we waste a lot. But aren’t there more pressing issues in the world? Like starvation? Like the incredible rate at which we are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere? Glad you asked, because food waste contributes to both of those and more.

According to the FAO, nearly one sixth of the world’s citizens are undernourished. This means that they do not even have sufficient amounts of food to lead healthy, active lives. Does our wastage problem seem slightly more dramatic now? Each year, the world’s farmers far, far exceed the amount of food that would be needed for each human on the planet to thrive. Before it can get to them, however, we waste massive amounts of food at every step of production. Then wealthy consumers over-purchase food which eventually simply ends up in waste bins.

And then there is the environment. In 2013, the production of food waste was beaten out only by the United States and China in the amount of CO2 that it contributed to global warming. Food that is produced and then wasted currently occupies around 1.3 billion hectares, or about 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land area. When the spread of agricultural land is one of the biggest contributors to the destruction of rain forests and biodiversity, that’s serious. And we haven’t even mentioned yet the unfathomable amount of water, a scarce resource these days, that is used, nor the pollution created by the tons and tons of fertilizer dumped on these uneaten crops.

Then of course, all of this pollution and environmental destruction ends up disproportionately affecting the poor. Poverty makes it nearly impossible for people to distance themselves from areas that are polluted and toxic for their health, and for them to overcome resource scarcity that the better-off of society may not even notice.

So. We’ve established that we have a problem, and its name is food waste. What now?

The obvious answer is to waste less food; to be more conscious of how much food we’re taking; to finish all of our food to remind ourselves to take less next time. But it seems that no matter how much I harangue my friends about the issue, I watch their mountains of uneaten French fries, tasted and disliked entire meals and whole pieces of fruit pass by me on the conveyor at the end of the next meal. We’re human. Our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. And conveniently, our big, empty trays let us indulge them.

This is my challenge then, regardless of whether you are Catholic, Christian or just generally fond of your fellow humans and the environment — during the 40 days of Lent, go trayless. Making wasting just a little bit more difficult for yourself. Let’s see if we can’t start big changes in the world with tiny changes in our lives.

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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