The Ethics and Economics of Food Waste at Stanford

The Ethics and Economics of Food Waste at Stanford

“What’s the ethical thing to do?” asked a friend, gathering up three containers of half-eaten food after we ate lunch on Wilbur Field. “Put it in the fridge for later? I feel bad about wasting it.”

On Stanford’s campus during COVID, food is being packaged in individual containers to go. You can look at what’s in a container before taking it. You can also take multiple containers, as many as you can fit in  a medium-sized paper bag. Many of us find that we’re throwing out part of what’s in the containers – we just can’t eat mountains of rice or potatoes at every meal. Or, we find that we don’t like the food. At pre-pandemic Stanford, we could choose the amount of vegetables, meat, or carbs to put on a plate. Now that we can’t choose, we’re wasting part of what’s been given.

Is it unethical to throw out the food?

“What’s the alternative?” I said to my friend. “I don’t see how it’s more ‘ethical’ to make yourself feel sick or get fat.”

After more reflection, I have concluded that “ethical” is the wrong term to use in this context. Ethics relates to moral guidelines that should govern our behavior. When I use the term ethical, I mean that an action is ethical if it does not hurt other people.

I’m not advocating grabbing containers of food and throwing them straight in the trash. I’m merely saying that we shouldn’t be so paranoid about food waste that we avoid eating in a healthy manner – such worries have no sound economic basis.

The eminent British economist Lionel Robbins defined economics as “the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternate uses.” In other words, economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources. In some parts of the world, food is scarce. If our food waste prevents others from accessing food, causing them to starve, our food waste is unethical.

So, does food waste hurt other people?

Throwing out food does not hurt our fellow Stanford students. My peers aren’t hurt if I don’t eat the entire large quantity of rice that the dining hall gives me along with the chicken I actually wanted. However, we can help our friends by offering them some of the pre-portioned food we don’t want. For example, if one friend gives broccoli to another instead of throwing it out, both friends benefit.

On a large scale, however, food waste has the potential to hurt the poor. If students take vast quantities of food, as opposed to smaller quantities, this – by definition – increases the demand for food. When students waste food, they’re apt to take larger quantities of food. As basic principles of economics teach, everything else equal, an increase in demand creates an increase in price. A higher price of food means that food is harder for poor people to afford.

Stanford has already taken steps to combat the effects on poor people: the dining halls serve relatively high quantities of cheap food (carbohydrates) and relatively low quantities of more expensive food (vegetables, berries, and red meat). Because the price of carbohydrates is already relatively low, an increase in demand might not increase their price as much as it would increase the price of other things like red meat.

However, even if Stanford were not taking these steps, Stanford does not purchase enough food to increase the price of food on a large scale. And even if it did, the supply of food would likely adjust, in the long run, to the increased demand. So over time, an increase in the demand for food would only increase the price of food if supply failed to adjust to the increase in demand. However, since about the 1990s, the price of food per hour of labor has been decreasing, on average – suggesting a decrease in the price of food rather than an increase.

We, as students under the current dining plan, are incentivized to take more food than we might actually eat.

We can’t control our food portions, we can’t cook for ourselves, and access to the dining hall is limited. As long as Stanford uses its current system to allocate food to us, students have an incentive to take as many containers as we can fit in one bag. We don’t want to be hungry, but we can only enter the dining hall three times per day. We thus have an incentive to take as many containers as possible, in the hopes that we’ll find something we like.

Our alternative is to take one container of food and eat it all: even if we don’t like the food, even if it makes us feel sick, even if it makes us gain weight.

If every student did this, Stanford might purchase less food. But the decrease in the amount of food Stanford purchases would probably not be large enough to decrease the price of food and thus help the poor. So, we students might be subjecting ourselves to unpleasant health consequences to avoid food waste for no reason. We’d hurt ourselves without helping anyone else.

The system of to-go meals is not without benefits. One benefit is the increased attention to hygiene in the dining halls, of which food waste is currently a byproduct. If Stanford can prevent the spread of disease, including the common cold as well as COVID, that will save students from losing productivity. Furthermore, packaging the food in containers allows students to take an extra container to go, so we’re less likely to miss a meal and suffer adverse health consequences.

Instead of thinking about the new dining situation through the lens of ethics, let’s look at it through the lens of economics. Economics teaches that there are trade-offs to everything. So, when we go to the dining hall, let’s be mindful of what food we take, but let’s not feel guilty, about throwing out food that we find we’re unable to finish.

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