In Praise of Waste

April 13, 2021

Why food waste actually helps.

Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago newspaper columnist, once wrote about how he cut his food costs. Basically, before he allowed himself to buy any food at all, he first sure that he and his two sons had eaten every crumb of anything edible in the house. It made for some funny meals.

That came to mind when I saw a release from Unilever, concerning a study they had done with Canadian consumers on behalf of its Hellman’s Mayonnaise brand. Basically, they encouraged subjects to make meals out of food in their refrigerators that they would otherwise have tossed.

The study took place last November, among 911 Canadian families with children. They were asked to commit to a one “use-up day” a week in which they would gather up all the food in their fridges that was nearing its expiration date and make a meal out of it with a “flexipe.”

According to Unilever’s release, this was a roaring success:

7 in 10 participants (70%) agreed they felt more resourceful in the kitchen and 6 in 10 (61%) felt more confident in the kitchen, as a result of taking part in the study. Additionally, 7 in 10 (71%) reported that they had saved money by participating in the study.

I don’t doubt that they saved money. The question is, will Unilever make any, by encouraging this behavior?

The short-term motivation isn’t hard to understand. Remember, this was done for their line of mayonnaise, the most universal ingredient/condiment ever. It goes with everything, which is why it would probably be a great thing to have on hand for “flexipes.”

But if I were Unilever, I’d watch it.

They plan to make a program of this, called “Make Taste, Not Waste,” to be rolled out across Canada, then globally. Everyone agrees that wasting food is a terrible thing, but no one, it seems, dares to utter the flipside: It contributes to sales. Every time someone eats food they would otherwise have tossed, it means they’re not buying something new.

In the column I referred to at the beginning, Royko remarked that he was driven to his extreme eat-everything-in-the-house-first rule because otherwise, his sons would eat nothing but frozen pizza. But will no one think of the poor frozen pizza processors?

In fact, I’d like to see the industry launch an “Adopt and Toss” program. Food processing companies who are having financial trouble could apply to be adopted by participating consumers. They would commit to tossing out one product a week from that company, even if it was still good, and replacing it with a fresh one.

OK, it needs work.