Ahmed: Wipe your plates clean

One day recently, a friend complained in the dining hall that the salad was not good. “Then why are you eating it? Just leave it,” I responded. “No, I don’t want to waste food,” he told me. His simple answer struck me.

Wasting food is an offense of which I was often — and still occasionally am — guilty. Unfortunately, I am not alone.

Yale students frequently waste food. We habitually put more food on our trays than we can possibly eat; then we leave it, without feeling any guilt whatsoever. The worst thing we do is go for seconds without having finished what is already on our plate. After we have had our mini-feasts, we put our trays away. The leftovers obviously go to the trash.

Our reasoning is that as we were the ones who paid for the food, it should concern no one what we actually do with the food. This logic makes sense to an extent: People have the right to do whatever they want to do with their belongings. Food is simply another good that people buy with their money, and if they do not like it, they have the right to throw it away.

But there are two problems with this argument: one economic and one moral. The economic problem is that the price we pay for our food does not include the social cost of producing that food. For example, when we buy a tuna sandwich, the price includes only the cost of producing the sandwich — the money paid to the fishing company that caught the fish, the cost of transporting the fish to New Haven, the costs incurred at the sandwich bread factory, and so on.

What the price tag does not include are the externalities: the social costs the sandwich-maker does not and cannot account for in its pricing strategy. Damage to the environment by transporting the materials over thousands of miles, low wages paid to fishermen who caught the fish, depletion of fish due to overfishing and other such hidden costs are examples of unaccounted costs. Thus when we throw a sandwich away, we incur all these social costs for no reason.

There is also the moral problem with throwing away food. Wasting food at a time when millions of people around the world do not have sufficient means of feeding themselves or their children is a terrible thing. Would it not have been better to donate our food to people who need of it, instead of wasting it?

But donate what, uneaten tuna sandwiches? The idea is not so much to start donating perishable food products, but rather not to buy these products when they are not required. This is a lesson that would have to be learned not only by college students who throw away food in their dining halls but also by the American public at large. Wasting food is a national scourge. According to a University of Arizona study, food worth $100 billion is wasted annually in the United States. That is more than the combined GDPs of 20 of Africa’s poorest countries. An economist might describe this as an inefficient distribution of resources. A humanist might label this a gross injustice.

On a personal level, we should try our best not to waste food. This is what we can practically apply in our daily lives, starting from the dining halls. Take small amounts of food on your plate at a time. Go for seconds or thirds if need be, but finish the thing you have on your plate first. If trying a new cuisine, it does not hurt to put a tiny amount on your plate to test it first. In fact, we should not only be careful ourselves, but also remind our friends to not waste food. Not wasting food does not take much effort, but it makes a big difference to the world around us.

Syed Salah Ahmed is a sophomore in Saybrook



  • Yale 08

    Producers easily account for negative externalities through effective enterprise risk management.

    Consumers easily account for negative externalities. But their tolerance for pollution, quality, etc. varies with their economic stature. Poor countries would rather have growth than hyper-clean rivers. Rich countries can afford to sacrifice some growth for less pollution. But this is a naturally occurring equilibrium, not government enforced.

    This hyper-environmentalism is incredibly anti-humanity, anti-growth, and anti-freedom.

  • Charles Zhu

    @Yale 08: if externalities are so easily accounted for, why does the term exist at all - externalities are, by definition, problems that the free market cannot resolve.

    This kind of reasoning is typical of people who use phrases such as "effective enterprise risk management" to confuse other. Great, you took intro macro and pressed buttons on a computer for Goldman Sachs once. What is effective enterprise risk management exactly? Tear away the facade of pseudo-intelligence and your argument boils down to an immature excuse to not finish the vegetables on your plate. Does anything you just said have anything to do with not wasting your food? Like the toddlers that I sometimes babysit, a better argument would have been "Broccoli tastes bad." My response would have been "Grow up."

    Yale students are the top 1 percent of the wealthiest nation in the world. Climate change and environmental problems won't affect us at all, but that doesn't excuse us from being immature and callous.

    I cannot BELIEVE that an editorial asking for people to stop wasting food would be called "hyper-environmentalism", "anti-humanity", "anti-growth", and "anti-freedom."

  • Spherical Cow

    Yale 08:

    Whether you mean to or not, your conflation of "anti-humanity, anti-growth, and anti-freedom" is very troubling. Growth is a relatively recent phenomena, and while I completely agree that it has resulted in many good outcomes, many people have not seen them. Humanity and freedom are far more universal than growth, although even those are nebulous without further explaination.

    Also, I think that only in such a wealthy country such as this one, could you have the audacity to suggest that people's tolerance for pollution is somehow a choice. Most people around the world do not "choose" to consume. They eat to survive. They do not tolerate cyanide in their rivers — nultinational gold mining firms let it runoff with abandon, and the countries lack the infrastructure to stop it. Their environmental problems are sometimes their own, but more often than not, they stem from our consumption. Deforestation is not a "negative externality" for many, but rather the result of land grabs by corrupt elites who sell forests to companies to clear-cut, and then of quotidian charcoal sales in the absense of jobs.

    You are right that there is often a trade-off, but that trade-off should be "theirs" to make — not the U.S., China, Japan, or Europe's.

  • Yale 11

    Yale 08, for the reasons outlined by the previous two posters, you are anti-rationality and pro-ignorance.

  • 09yalie

    jesus, what's more offensive is this is typical enviro-nagging. i already have a mom, buddy, and i don't need captain planet and the planeteers to try to guilt me into living a certain lifestyle.

    this is america. i'm free to eat however much i please, and unless it's directly against my own rational self-interest not to do so, i'll waste however much food i please. because it's my food--i paid for it, so i can do whatever i want with it.

  • A reader

    Confidential to #5--I wish that you had included those two paragraphs in your answer to the pertinent essay question on your Yale application. The admissions committee would have had food for thought, indeed!
    This kind of selfishness gives those living in America a bad name: "I've got mine, now the world can go to pieces."