“Pass those plates down to the food disposal,” Grandpa would inevitably boom at the end of each meal, scraping sandwich crusts and half-eaten bowls of applesauce into a pile on his plate. Through the doorway of the adjacent dining room, our parents winced as Grandpa smilingly gobbled down his 18 grandchildren’s scraps. They knew that their admonitions to “Eat your dinner or no dessert” had been empty threats, for Grandpa’s presence at the kids’ table and his commitment to letting no food remnant go to waste were as ritual as the Sunday Mass we had just attended.
Grandpa hated wasting food. As he enthusiastically drank the briny juice from a pickle jar once the last spear had been consumed, he passed the value of being conscientious down to his children and grandchildren. Our attitude toward food waste is more than a family tradition, though; it is a value intimately tied with our faith. And it’s particularly linked to one of the greatest treasures of our tradition: Catholic Social Teaching.
Informed by Scripture, the Catechism, Vatican documents, bishops’ letters and more, Catholic Social Teaching offers an abundance of wisdom and guidance on living justly in our current world. The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops has identified seven key themes that run throughout the tradition, and some of them are especially helpful when considering how we treat the food that passes through our lives.
Option for the poor and vulnerable
Keeping a preferential option for the poor means considering first how the choices we make will impact the most vulnerable members of our world. This includes the small, everyday decisions of our lives. When the burger we ordered is overcooked, do we send it back and ask for a new one? What do we do when we’d prefer a fresh meal to finishing yesterday’s leftovers? When we’re in a hurry, do we take the time to wash and prepare the soon-to-spoil vegetables in the refrigerator? In each of these choices, we are called to keep the poor and vulnerable in mind and to remember that our decisions have repercussions. Refusing to waste may not solve the problems of world hunger, but it can reduce our grocery budgets so that we are able to share more with the poor, and it can act as an antidote to entitlement, reminding us that our priority should be considering the vulnerable, not minding our own preferences.
Rights and responsibilities
Human dignity can only be honored if basic human rights are met, including the rights to food, housing, medical care, education, equality, and freedom of religion. Those of us with full pantries have the responsibility to not only make thoughtful individual choices but also to consider how our food system can better protect the rights of the most vulnerable. For starters, we can support businesses that donate excess food to hungry people. Many businesses’ websites will include information about what they do with their food surplus (take Panera, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, for example). Trader Joe’s donates a staggering 100 percent of products not fit for sale but safe for consumption. Or we can call the business owner or manager to have a conversation about food waste. If you discover that your favorite cafe or regular grocery store doesn’t donate their unsold food to those in need, use the opportunity to advocate on behalf of the hungry. Express that this important issue influences your purchasing choices and tell them about MealConnect, a website that gives donors a convenient, free, and safe way to reduce waste and connect surplus meals with food-insecure neighbors. Consumers have power, and it’s our responsibility to use that power to help the vulnerable.
Care for God’s creation
In addition to impacting our human family, food waste impacts our shared home. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, one-third of food produced for human consumption globally is lost or wasted, a figure that translates to more than 38 million tons of wasted food in the United States alone. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 95 percent of this food ends up in landfills or combustion facilities. While wasting less — through grocery shopping carefully, working with local businesses, and eating leftovers — is the priority, there are ways to dispose of unsalvageable food that shows respect for our Creator and our planet. Composting is one of these options. Composting food waste can help improve soils, grow the next generation of crops, and reduce methane emissions from landfills. Whether you choose to compost in your backyard or partner with a composting service, deciding to think twice about where food waste ends up is an excellent way to care for God’s creation.
Nourishment is essential to our survival, and through our daily interaction with food, we have ample opportunity to put our faith into action. I am reminded of St. Therese of Lisieux’s words, “Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, or even at their difficulty, as at the love with which we do them.” May our awareness about waste and treatment of food be done with love, justice, and gratitude for God and all of God’s creation.