“Eat your plate,” my mother used to say. “No dessert until you eat your plate.”

She didn’t mean the actual plate, although that didn’t stop me and my seven siblings from occasionally putting on goofy faces and mock-chomping the family dinnerware.

She meant the food. All of it. Right down to the last wayward pea.

I remembered Mom’s mealtime mandates this week upon reading that South Portland and Scarborough soon will become Maine’s first municipalities that collect food waste, separate from the rest of the trash, at the curbside each week.

The pilot programs aim to divert the household food waste from our rubbish stream and ship it to an “anaerobic digester” in the northern Maine town of Exeter, where it will be converted into electricity, compost and animal bedding.

Fascinating stuff. But here’s the part that hit me like an overripe tomato: According to a 2011 study by the University of Maine, 28 percent of Maine’s household trash consists of food waste.

That’s a ton of food waste. Or, to be more accurate, about 150,000 tons per year.

Granted, not all of it is edible – at least by 21st-century American standards: apple cores, eggshells, coffee grounds, potato peels, the “garbage” list goes on and on …

But what about that quarter-full box of stale crackers? The hot dogs that are a few days past their “sell-by date”? The bluish-looking lump in the rear of the refrigerator that started off as leftovers but morphed into a paving stone?

How often, and how easily, do we take a sniff or a tentative nibble, make a face and chuck it in the trash?

Put more bluntly, when it comes to the millennia-old correlation between having enough food and living to eat another day, do we have a clue how lucky we are?

For the past six years, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has studied food loss and food waste globally. Its findings paint a stark contrast between the world’s haves and have-nots.

In the United States and Europe, the FAO reports, consumer food waste – that is, food that makes it to your kitchen or pantry but is never actually eaten – averages between 210 and 250 pounds per person each year.

Compare that with sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia, where per capita food waste runs between a paltry 13 and 24 pounds per year.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all start gnawing on cantaloupe rinds or creatively squeeze one more serving out of that fuzzy thing in the Tupperware container.

But as the Natural Resources Defense Council notes in “Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” the relatively low cost and widespread availability of food in this country clearly “has created behaviors that do not place high value on what is purchased.”

Meaning we don’t plan well enough when we buy food, we’re haphazard when we store it, and, the moment it begins to look even a half-shade less than perfect, we have no qualms whatsoever about giving it the heave-ho.

“That’s so far removed from my thinking, I can’t even relate. I just can’t even fathom that,” Dixie Shaw said. “I can’t even imagine that people would throw away perfectly good food.”

Shaw runs two food banks in Aroostook County for Catholic Charities Maine. She’s an expert at finding perfectly edible food that retailers and farmers might otherwise throw out and funneling it to needy families via 24 food pantries scattered throughout northernmost Maine.

One of her biggest peeves? Those “expires on” or “use by” warnings, stamped on everything from a box of Triscuits to a jar of Ragu, that far too many people take far too seriously.

“It’s nothing but a marketing tool because they want you to buy more,” Shaw said. “People sucker right into that. They fall for that.”

Down in Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has been trying for the past year or two to bring some sanity – not to mention frugality – to the not-so-exact science of determining just when “old” becomes “too old” for whatever lurks in the back of the fridge or food cupboard.

The Food Date Labeling Act, proposed by Pingree and fellow Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, would establish actual time lines for food expiration and adopt universal labels that differentiate between, say, peak quality and downright dangerous.

“In everyone’s household, there’s the person who picks something up and says, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this label. We’ve got to throw it away!'” Pingree noted in an interview Thursday. “And the other person says, ‘Oh, no. This is perfectly good. We can still eat this.'”

(Little wonder that the proposed legislation, which Pingree says has already drawn widespread support from food manufacturers and retailers alike, has been dubbed the “Domestic Harmony Bill.”)

Still, our elected leaders, food bankers and curbside collectors can only do so much.

At some point, reducing food waste comes down to you and me and those 21 tomatoes that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, every man, woman and child in America discards every year.

One exception: A few years back, Shaw met a Maine family that would never do such a thing. They called her to say they had a truckload of canned food to donate if she’d come pick it up.

She’ll never forget the long, winding driveway, the cameras on every other tree, the disembodied voice in the doorway that said “I’ll be right there” the second she rang the doorbell.

“They’re survivalists,” Shaw said. “They hunker down 10 years at a time. And they pack food in for The Great One, whatever that is, whatever disaster might be coming or the end of the world or World War III, whatever it is that they’re surviving. They pack food in for 10 years.”

Shaw loaded the “cases and cases and cases” of food into her van, only to realize later that they were indeed a decade old and thus well outside the limits of her food banks. (She draws the line at three years.)

“So I gave it all to a bear hunter,” she recalled. “And he gave me a $50 donation, and I said, ‘Thank you. Now I’ll go buy some real food.'”

Still, Shaw said, it does make you wonder …

“If they’re right, and it’s nine years and 364 days and the end of the world comes and that’s all that’s left to eat?” she mused. “I’m eating it.”

Somewhere, my mother just smiled.

Correction: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, March 31, 2017 to correct the total amount of Maine’s household food waste.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

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