Confused by what date labels on food products mean? Us, too. So we looked into it.
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Have you ever wondered what on Earth all of those "best before," "sell by," and "expiration" dates sprinkled on products actually mean?

Go into any grocery store, and you’ll be confronted with different dates on all kinds of food. Not only are there "best before" dates and "sell by" dates, there are also "harvest" dates and "shipping" dates, to name just a few.

If you’re simply trying to buy food that’s as fresh as possible, it’s hard to know what to pay attention to or what dates to trust.


Take "best before" labels, for example.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food producers aren't required to put "expired by," "use by," or "best before" labels on their products, and if they do put an expiration date, FDA laws don't preclude the sale of food past it (with the exclusion of infant formula).

According to professional home economist Ellie Topp, most "best before" labels have nothing to do with food safety and everything to do with food taste. Food producers want to protect their brands, and ensuring their food is as delicious as possible is part of that. A package of noodles or a bag of tortilla chips eaten at a reasonable time after its "best before" date will most likely be perfectly safe to eat and taste the same. This is even true for eggs and dairy products.

We can't make the same promise for whatever is in that pot. Image via iStock.

Knowing that food labels aren't necessarily telling consumers what we think they are is one thing — actually using them to inform food-buying choices is another. Armed with my newfound label-reading skills, I hit up my favorite local grocery store for some necessities.

Here's what I learned, along with a few things you might want to keep in mind during your next trip to the grocery store:

1. Milk cartons usually display some iteration of a “sell by,” “best before,” or “freshest by” date, but the milk can last a lot longer than that if unopened.

Before Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization, fresh milk wouldn't last longer than a day or two before going off. Oh, how times have changed! Image via Heather Libby/Upworthy.

The date on this carton of lactose-free milk tells the shelf stockers at my local grocery store that it is good to sell until Dec. 8 if it is refrigerated properly. When it comes to living in my fridge, pasteurized milk can last quite a while longer if it's unopened (and then at least a week after it's opened). Pasteurized milk is one of the safest products out there. As a general rule — as long as it smells and tastes OK, it's fine to drink. And if it starts to sour, you can make these pancakes.

2. When it comes to eggs, "sell by" or "best before" doesn’t mean "throw me out."

This artfully photographed carton of eggs has its best days ahead of it. Image via Heather Libby/Upworthy.

Most cartons of eggs purchased from grocery stores are fresh and delicious even after the "sell by" date. The FDA says to eat eggs within three-five weeks of purchasing them. The sell-by date will likely pass during that time, but the eggs are still safe. Older eggs may not taste as fantastic as eggs fresh from the farm, but they're also not likely to make you sick either.

If for some reason you’re skeptical about the health of your eggs, there’s an amazeballs little test you can try — and you only need a glass of water to do it! Plop a questionable egg into the glass of water and watch what happens. A fresh egg will sink to the bottom; a not-so-fresh will float.

3. Canned goods are the one true post-apocalyptic food.

I received this can of "Spamalot"-branded Spam as a gift in 2008. I hope to give it to someone in my will. Image via Heather Libby/Upworthy.

In a famous zombie movie, the heroes sought out Twinkies as the perfect post-disaster food. Realistically, they should have been looking for canned goods. "Best before" dates on cans are to remind consumers of when the food inside them is still at its best. After that date, the food inside may lose some of its flavor but should still be safe to eat. As long as the cans aren't dented, swollen, or rusty, the USDA says they're "safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to freezing temperatures, or temperatures above 90 degrees."

Lack of clarity around food labels affects more than consumer food choices. It also has big implications for our landfills.

A 2013 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that confusing food date labels led to a lot of "perfectly good, edible food" being wasted in America. While most consumers were looking to date labels for information on food safety, the manufacturers were providing information about optimal food freshness instead. That difference is significant and can result in a lot of food being thrown out before it needs to be. According to their research, Americans throw out an average of $390 worth of food per person per year. For a family of four, that’s $1,560 per year — not to mention a lot of food going to waste unnecessarily in our landfills.

These stock-photo models look hopelessly confused. They shouldn't have to be. Image via iStock.

In an ideal world, choosing the safest, freshest food in the grocery store shouldn’t require a calendar or a cheat sheet.

Whether we realize it at the time or not, we’re putting a lot of thought into the food we bring into our homes and put on our plates. Coupled with education programs around food safety and waste, simple and standardized food labels could be a way of helping us make safer, fresher choices that keep still-good food out of landfills.

Until that happens, there’s always the sniff test.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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