Wasted Opportunities: An In-Depth Look At Food Waste

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Sooner or later, a cluttered fridge demands cleaning. By wading through the remains of meals long past—and brave purchases for which inspiration flagged once it got late on a Wednesday night—we help fulfill our perennial and compulsory duty to maintain order and cleanliness in a world that so often doesn’t make sense.

If we are really feeling particularly pious then we take the industrious route, rinsing out all of the plastic containers so that they can be recycled, and composting everything allowed. Triumph!  When the task is complete, we let go of any guilt or frustration over wasted money, time, and food, and we relax into with a sense that all is a little more right with the world. A job well done! Double triumph!

But we could be doing more. While the satisfaction of having a clean fridge should not be taken away from anyone, food waste weighs down our trash bags and feeds our garbage disposals unnecessarily. Waste from commercial and industrial outlets is an even bigger factor in our currently struggling food system.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) estimates that we waste 33% of food produced globally. In the U.S. the estimates are around 40%. Translated into the inputs and outputs of our food system, this amount of food represents on an annual and national scale about 25% of water used, 31% of cropland farmed, 33 million cars-worth of greenhouse gases emitted, 30% of fertilizer used, and 21% of the waste in our landfills. It also accounts for $165 billion dollars lost annually.

All this food could easily “feed the world” (the slogan that big agribusiness pushes to grow more food rather than consume it wisely). One in six Americans does not have enough food to eat. The USDA Economic Research Service estimates U.S. food waste to be 133 billion pounds of food, enough to supply 1,249 calories per capita! Globally, food waste amounts to what some people estimate is enough food to feed 3 billion people. If access to healthy food were increased, 805 million people who are chronically undernourished, and over 2 billion suffering from micronutrient deficiency, could be fed.

Food waste has a huge environmental impact as well. Food in landfills decomposes anaerobically, creating methane; a greenhouse gas twenty times as harmful to the atmosphere as C02. Landfills account for almost 20% of methane emitted in the U.S., the majority of it coming from food. Obviously, limiting food waste could have a huge impact on the U.S. environment and global health.

From farm to landfill the most prevalent way food gets wasted in the U.S. is on the retail and consumption-at-home end of the supply chain. Without taking on-farm waste into account (a highly variable and largely under researched phenomenon), retail markets and homes account for just over 60% of total food waste, according to NRDC. The mechanisms behind this waste fit into three broad categories: 1) Uniformity; 2) Expiration dates; 3) A need for abundance.

Uniformity: We like it when things are consistent. Our food has been turned into icons; ideas rather than agricultural products. Example: we like a Granny Smith apple that’s crisp, tart, and has a perfectly symmetrical bright green skin. Our penchant for homogeneity, however, is often at odds with Mother Nature’s genetics and growing conditions that often result in produce that doesn’t necessarily fit the mold. It is estimated that grocery stores are responsible for throwing away about 10% of the food wasted in the U.S. A lot of this food is thrown away simply because it doesn’t look good.  A bump here, a bruise there, and it gets tossed in the landfill to rot instead of feeding someone.

Prior to reaching the supermarket, if a fruit or vegetable is misshapen, too small, too big, or abnormal, then a farmer probably can’t sell it. In other cases, the market price of a product won’t merit the cost of labor to pick it, so it sits and rots. The solution might seem as easy as making donations out of these unwanted field and market leftovers, but it is not that simple. Only about 10% of total wasted food is donated and very little of this is recovered from farms. A recent report for the Food Waste Reduction Alliance found that amongst a host of logistical constraints, 67% of retailers and wholesalers cited liability concerns and 50% of manufacturers cited regulatory constraints as barriers to donating food.

Expiration Dates: So, we take our perfectly shaped produce home along with our other perfectly consistent food products and inevitably the days go by with us forgetting to use something. Embedded in our DNA is a fear of rotten food, but modern science has solved this dilemma not only with processes and preservatives, but also with expiration dates. From a food waste perspective, expiration dates are more of a problem than you might expect. Emily Broad Leib, lead author of the report The Dating Game, estimates that about one-third of food thrown out in homes results from expiration dates being misread or misunderstood. The report shows that there is vast confusion amongst what these dates mean from state to state and even from package to package. Multiple label descriptions such as “sell by,” “best by,” “use by,” “freeze by,” etc., and lack of uniform federal policy on labeling (each state can make its own rules) adds to the waste. In many cases, the food is fine after the date, and in some cases, depending on how the food is shipped, excess time out of cold storage could render the food unsafe prior to the date on the package, calling into question just how safe the labels are. Expiration-date waste is not only a problem in homes: in 2001 businesses threw away $900 million worth of food because of expiration dates.

A Need For Abundance: The last and most obvious category of waste is our need for abundance—to surround ourselves with more than we can possibly eat. Chalk it up to genetics again: we want to feel safe and secure for the winter, but this more often than not results in wasted food. We see this in our homes, but also in grocery stores and restaurants. As consumers we expect to see an average 50,000 grocery stores items stocked our local markets’  shelves 24-7. Restaurants push large-portion 1,200-calorie meals, and we as consumers demand them by equating “value” with portion size. Our desire to be well-fed at any time inevitably resulted in pre-prepared foods taking over grocery store displays, half-eaten meals at restaurants being thrown away, and leftovers from our fridges joining the dumpster-to-methane cycle. All the while, the current state of affairs skirts the fact that many people are hungry--or, if they do have “enough” to make them feel full, it's from unhealthy food.

So here we are today … with too much homogeneous food to eat and a high degree of confusion about whether or not we can eat it. Luckily, there are solutions, large and small.

Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, which takes a deep look at our systemic waste problem in the U.S., says that food waste is inherently linked to our choices:

Broadly speaking, I consider food ‘wasted’ when an edible item goes unconsumed as a result of human action or inaction. There is culpability in waste. Whether it’s from an individual’s choice, a business mistake, or a government policy, most food waste stems from decisions made somewhere from farm to fork.”

While his is a fairly bleak outlook, it also creates an avenue for change: wasting food is a choice. By understanding the inefficiencies in our food system and by looking for ways to improve them we can change our behavior and prevent wasted food.

We can start on a national scale:

  • As a consumer, demand that grocery store chains do a better job with their food waste. An inspiring example is France’s Intermarché, which recently launched an “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign, which was overwhelmingly well-received.

  • As an advocate, support the work of groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest who are holding restaurants to task for their exorbitantly caloric menu items.

  • As a voter, choose policies that support food safety, and farming and nutrition assistance that will curtail waste and make it easier to glean and donate food. To learn more about your federal representatives’ records in relation to food policy, start by heading over to the Food Policy Action Scorecard.

Large-scale solutions will take collective efforts from us all as consumers and voters.

Meanwhile, we can do plenty in our own homes, towns and cities to make a difference:

  • Buy and cook local produce:

    • Produce that hasn’t traveled thousands of miles will last longer in your fridge or on your counter.

    • Local farmers are often happy to sell for a reduced rate the non-uniform “seconds” that grocery stores throw away. Not only will you be preventing waste, you’ll also be increasing your farmer’s profits by buying something that wouldn’t have been sold otherwise.

    • Cooking with your own produce means you don’t have to rely on inaccurate expiration dates.

  • Plan your meals: avoid the culture of abundance, rely on leftovers more for lunches, and consider making “clean the fridge stews” every few weeks.

  • Compost: A well-managed compost system has far less impact on climate change than the methane that will be produced if that same food is anaerobically digested into methane in landfills.

When we act collectively, every step we take, big and small can have a profound effect. Done well, tackling our food waste problem in the U.S. and around the globe will help prevent the buildup of greenhouse gasses, help feed hungry people, save homes and businesses billions of dollars a year, and make it so much easier to clean out the fridge when that inevitable moment comes. Let’s do it!

Sources:

Much of this information comes from a fabulous webinar hosted by the Sustainable Agriculture and Food System Funders. To learn more, check out the presentations and audio files here.

Know of any other great food waste reduction resources or stories of food waste successes? Have any more suggestions about how we can reduce food waste globally, nationally or in our homes? Let us know here at Wellness Warrior via a comment or two! Let’s keep the conversation going.

Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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