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Opinion: Retail food, clothing waste is sickening

By Jared Watson
On December 2, 2010

I was talking to a friend about a food service job that she recently quit. I asked what the worst day of the week for her to work was. She answered without hesitation.

"Friday," she said. "We had to throw so much food away."

Her company's policy, like many other restaurants, is to throw away unsold food. Having worked in restaurants for several years myself, I can attest to seeing pounds upon pounds of food of all kinds, almost all of it perfectly edible, ending up in the garbage at the end of the night.

This wastefulness is certainly not limited to Texas. In fact, in a study conducted in March of this year by California Watch and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California found that restaurants in the state dump "tens of thousands of tons of edible food every year," and further that "the vast majority of the state's 90,000 restaurants and eateries do not participate in food donation programs."

This is insanity. Millions of people in this country alone experience hunger every day. Why would anybody in good conscience throw away food that might alleviate even a little bit of that? How can someone hold food in his or her hand, food someone else can eat, and just drop it in the garbage?

Your local grocery store is not blameless either. According to the same study, major retail grocery chains are "more likely to throw away fruits, vegetables and even entire hams and roasts than donate to distribution centers." The stores often express concern that donated food could make recipients sick, even if it is not expired, but federal and state laws protect grocers from liability if they make donations. Besides, ask someone with an empty belly if they'd take a chance on a loaf of bread that's a day past its expiration date instead of going hungry.

But retailers don't just throw away food. Stores that sell clothing often throw away merchandise they are unable to sell, and furthermore, will intentionally damage and destroy those clothes so that people are unable to dig them out of dumpsters and attempt to return them.

A New York Times article written in January highlighted the practices of retailers Walmart and H&M destroying "warm socks. Cute patent leather Mary Jane school shoes, maybe for fourth graders, with the instep cut up with a scissor. Men's jackets, slashed across the body and the arms. The puffy fiber fill was coming out in big white cotton balls."

Both retailers responded to the article and claimed they would investigate the matter immediately. But it seems just as likely to me that "investigate" means "ignore the problem and hope the questions stop."

So what keeps policies like these going? Employees that don't ask questions and follow orders. If their boss tells them to throw away this pallet of lunch meat or rip this cart of blue jeans to shreds, they will do it for fear of losing their jobs. And the managers that give the orders don't question the policies advocating the destruction, because they are not responsible for the ramifications of the decision either. They too are following orders.

Experts talk a lot about what you can do as a consumer and homeowner to reduce waste and feed and clothe those less fortunate, and it absolutely is important. But we as a country would have a lot more success feeding more people if restaurants and retail stores stopped looking at their bottom lines, looked into whatever heart they may have left, and use the products they make to save lives. Even if they can't pay for it.

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