Lessons

Culture of Waste: The Gap Between Food Waste and Food Insecurity

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Wasted tomatoes. Image by Karim Chrobog. Washington, D.C., 2014.

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Two garbage workers inspect, scan and collect food waste containers in Seoul’s Sungpa District. Each container has a barcode unique to every household. Seoul’s residents pay a monthly collection fee based on the amount of food waste discarded. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

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Florida Market's back alleys. Image by Karim Chrobog. Washington, D.C., 2014.

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Every household is legally required to separate food from other waste and discard leftovers into baskets such as these ones. Noncompliance carries financial penalties. Thanks to new legislation, food waste has been reduced by 25 percent since 2012. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

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Containers of wasted food in Florida Market. Image by Karim Chrobog. Washington, D.C., 2014.

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There are currently three ways to discard food waste in Seoul: pre-paid plastic garbage bags, small waste containers and the new Radio Frequency Identification System (RFID). Introduced in 2012, the RFID is a weight-based disposal system that charges residents a fee based on the weight of their food waste. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

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Cucumbers destined for the garbage. Image by Karim Chrobog. Washington, D.C., 2014.

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Even though Koreans are required to separate food from other garbage, byproducts sometimes do mix with food waste. In this case, aluminum has been carefully separated from food, and is then pressed and recycled. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

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Over 90 percent of South Korea’s food waste is recycled into biofuel, animal feed or fertilizer. Visiting a recycling facility in the Sungpa District, we wanted to take a first hand look at how the recycling process works. Each of these one-ton bags is derived entirely from the district’s food waste. The Government of Seoul argues that making food waste profitable is the only way to handle its massive food waste problem. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

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Garbage, garbage and more garbage. With nearly 25 million people and limited land space, Seoul is one of the world’s most densely populated cities—twice as much as New York City. This landfill is less than 45 minutes from downtown Seoul. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

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Landfill workers look onto mountains of garbage. About 360 tons of waste are collected at this landfill every day. The landfill operator has managed to turn garbage into a profitable business by harvesting methane from waste. It is then turned into electricity and sold to local power plants. The landfill is completely food waste free. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

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The people of Seoul love to eat. There are more eateries and restaurants in Seoul per square mile than virtually any other city in the world. Restaurants line up the street in Seoul’s Gangnam District. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

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South Koreans flock to food markets for lunch. Dozens of small eateries mostly consisting of a bench and open fire cooking stove make up the Gwangjang Market, one of Seoul’s oldest and most traditional food markets. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

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A food vendor sells local fare at one of the dozens of eateries inside the Gwangjang Market. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

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As early as the mid-1960s, South Korea’s GDP was similar to that of the poorer countries of Africa. Today, South Korea has the world’s 12th largest economy. As South Koreans have enjoyed rising income levels, food consumption has become an opulent affair. Seoul’s growing middle and upper class regularly attend weekend champagne buffets at the city’s four and five stars hotels. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

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About 23 percent of South Koreans are Buddhist. We attend a Buddhist eating ceremony to understand whether religion has played a role in getting a major part of the population to participate in the country’s national effort to reduce food waste. According to Buddhist teaching, each last grain must be consumed, and even the water used to clean the eating bowls may not be wasted. Image by Karim Chrobog. South Korea, 2014.

In 2013, 133 billion pounds of food worth $161 billion was lost across the U.S., making America the world's largest producer of food waste. While millions of people around the world, including 48.1 million within the United States, struggle to have enough to eat, food waste in America continues to be a pressing concern. Many factors contribute to the continuous waste and disposal of edible food in the United States, but one thing is certain, there is a cultural devaluing of food at play here and a cultural dependence on convenience that allows this trend to continue. Not only does excessive food waste spoil an opportunity to feed the millions of people starving in the world, but it also is responsible for dramatic greenhouse gas emissions and a massive waste of resources in the U.S. Tackling the issue of food waste offers a significant opportunity to feed the world's hungry and alleviate their suffering while also reducing our environmental impact and engineering more socially responsible ways to approach the agriculture and food industries. 

Using the resources provided to the right, as well the National Geographic article included here, research food waste practices in America and the impact that food waste is having on individuals as well as the environment. Also using the resources, familiarize yourself with the policies that South Korea has implemented in order to address this issue. Finally, try to answer the questions provided in order to explore what steps the U.S. can take to begin to address this issue. 

Educator Notes: 

While some of the resources for this module are similar to one another, and at moments even contain the same information, each of them is unique and offers new information on how food waste actually operates and what impact it is having. Read carefully, and synthesize the information for maximum impact.

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