Wasting Food, Wasting Lives
Imagine you went on a festive shopping spree and bought all the ingredients to bake a cake. Then you spent a few hours mixing and baking that decadent cake. You put a lot of effort into carefully calligraphing a colorful happy birthday message onto the icing. And then you dumped it in the trash. Facedown. All mixed up with coffee grinds and wrappers. That’s what I have to do every Shabbat in the Furman Dining Hall.
My job on the Shabbat waitstaff is a mostly pleasant experience. Setting tables and preparing food is rewarding work, even if no one in the cafeteria notices or appreciates my efforts. However, I do not enjoy cleaning up. After everyone leaves the dining hall I have to throw out all the uneaten food, and things can get a little sad. Trashing nearly untouched plates of chicken, vegetables and desserts seems unnecessary and wasteful.
An article published by the National Aquarium in Baltimore reported that 40% of American-produced food goes to waste. This staggering figure is very disturbing. Do we at YU throw out 40% of our food, just as the rest of America does? Perhaps this is one practice we don’t want to participate in. If there is such a surplus of food being wasted in America, why is it not used to feed starving children all over the world today?
Admittedly, this wastefulness is hardly YU’s fault. Under the New York City Health Code (§81.07, L) “food that has been served to the public shall not be re-served”. This applies to “charitable organizations' kitchens” as well (§81.01). Per these regulations, there is no way to reuse any of the food served on Shabbat. Good intentions notwithstanding, any deviation from this law could cause serious liability issues for YU, threatening an already uncertain financial future.
Nevertheless, the problem of wasted food remains. What are we doing to fix this?
In conversation with fellow students, I have found that the most prevalent attitude is indifference. Despite the incessant complaints about insufficient caf card funds, I often observe students discarding significant quantities of food at weekday meals. Occasionally, when I ask students if they would prefer to save the meal for later, I receive responses along the lines of, “it will be cold,” “I’ll just buy more when I’m hungry” and “It’s not a waste to throw away something useless.”
The indifference, I think, is a mistake. I feel that the most important point here is to feel the problem. It really bothers me that most people don’t give a second thought to the wasted food. Supposing the food truly had no further use, students should still be cognizant and expressive of the uneven distribution of resources on our planet. In the words of the Talmud, “one must bear the burden with his friend” (Avot 6:6). It does not suffice to assist, one has to empathize; and I would argue that in a sense the empathy is more important.
Even if there is little or nothing we can do to help undernourished children, we should at least feel a twinge of discomfort throwing out huge amounts of food. If we felt that discomfort, I am convinced that we would seek, discover and implement solutions.
And solutions are available. While discussing this issue with a friend of mine, he suggested that students be provided with recyclable to-go containers so they can pack up the food they purchased and did not eat. This bypasses all government regulations and does not raise any liability concerns for YU. The only obstruction to this solution is galvanizing the Office of Student Life into paying for these containers. Why isn’t this happening? When will we rouse ourselves from indifference?
When leveling these accusations, I do not intend to belittle our student body. My regard for my fellow students, and YU generally, is very high. So high, in fact, that I truly believe change is possible. As Yadin Teitz, a former editor of the opinions section of The Commentator put it, “It seems to me that being simultaneously an outspoken knocker and an ardent defender of YU…all stems from a strong overarching interest and loving concern for the well being of this place.” My complaints are not frustrated venting — they are hopeful calls for improvement.
Photo caption: The Furman Dining Hall on the Wilf Campus
Photo credit: The Commentator