Going Bananas

Richard Quinn

“CLEAN YOUR PLATE.” “You’ll eat what’s for dinner and like it.” “There are children starving in Africa.”

Those are lines I often heard as a child. I guess my parents weren’t aware of hunger in the U.S.—or the long-term damage to our waistlines and health that such clean-your-plate advice could have.

Still, at least we weren’t squandering food, which is a big problem these days. Each year, 80 million tons of food are wasted in the U.S. That’s equal to 149 billion meals and some $400 billion. Shockingly, nearly 40% of all food in America is wasted. These figures are for all types of food waste, not just in the home. Amid waste of that magnitude, it’s hard to imagine people being hungry in America, and yet 34 million of us don’t have consistent access to enough food.

Americans waste about 25% of the food they purchase by not preparing it before it goes bad and by not eating all the food they do prepare. What happened to leftovers? When I was a kid, a meatloaf seemed to go on forever and Thanksgiving presented endless opportunities. Tonight, we’re having leftover lobster mac and cheese for dinner. I promised a grandson I’d make that delightful dish on Cape Cod, even with the crustacean meat at $59.95 a pound. There will be no waste, no matter who’s lactose intolerant.

When I visit a Costco or BJs, I’m amazed at what people buy. Who knows how they use those giant sizes of everything? I’ve often wondered how long a gallon of mayonnaise lasts once opened. Apparently, if stored in the refrigerator, it’s about two months. That’s a lot of sandwiches to get through.

I was in a store recently and there were eggs on sale for 99 cents a dozen. That’s quite a bargain. Then I looked at the expiration date on the cartons. It was the next day. Not such a bargain after all, so more waste on the way. Or maybe not. I checked on the shelf life of eggs. Turns out they’re fine to use for several weeks after their expiration date. I wonder how many other people passed up this bargain and, in the process, created more wasted food.

Guess the No. 1 bestselling grocery store food? It’s the lowly—but healthy and inexpensive—banana. The average American consumes around 90 bananas a year. That’s the good news. The bad news: Supposedly, Americans throw away five billion bananas each year—and yet it’s so hard to find good banana ice cream.

Let’s say a family spends $1,000 a month on groceries and wastes 25%. That’s $250 down the garbage disposal each month. Dare I convert that to potential retirement savings? What the heck, based on a 6% annual return over 30 years, we’re talking $245,000.

Restaurants waste food, too. At my age, the senior doggy bag is no joke. I don’t even have a dog, but half my meal usually comes home with me. Two factors are at play. First, I can’t eat as much as I once did and, second, portion sizes have increased substantially over the past few decades. On average, restaurant customers in the U.S. leave 17% of their meals unfinished. Is there a good reason so much food goes uneaten?

Perhaps we’re looking for a bargain and size often trumps quality. We feel cheated if our plate doth not runneth over. Isn’t it curious that, despite all the food we waste, we Americans manage to be the most obese nation in the world? Our obesity leads to health care spending, which leads to financial problems…. You can see where this is going.

Many of our problems as a society and as individuals are connected. Have I demonstrated the link between bananas and a well-funded retirement? How about we make some banana bread—and make sure we eat the leftovers later?

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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