In 2012, the National Resources Defense Council (or NRDC) wrote a report about food waste in which Dana Gunders, scientist at NRDC, estimated that a whopping 40% of food grown in the U.S. is thrown away.
Not only is 40% of precious food being wasted, but so are the resources of land, water, fuel, and labor that it takes to get it to your table and dispose of it. Gunders states: "Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States."
Food waste is a complicated issue, with loss occurring at every part of the supply chain from farm to consumer. The issue is so serious and widespread, the USDA and the EPA now have a goal to reduce food waste 50% by 2030 to ‘improve food security and conserve natural resources’.
According to the USDA, food loss and waste in the U.S. accounts for "31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the overall food supply available to retailers". This amount of waste significantly impacts food security, resource conservation, and even climate change. The USDA states that "food loss and waste is the single largest component of disposed U.S. municipal solid waste, and accounts for a significant portion of U.S. methane emissions. Landfills are the third largest source of methane in the United States.”
Where's the waste coming from?
The USDA calculates that 10% of food waste occurs in retail venues, while 21% is a result of consumer habits.
Restaurants have had huge waste streams for quite some time, and we now know that about half that waste is food. One of the culprits is portion size – which we know are far too big. We can’t finish our food (and often portions are so big that we shouldn’t try!), so uneaten food goes back to the kitchen and into the trash. Extensive menus also mean a lot of food must be on hand at all times - and if not used in a timely manner, it too is destined for the trash.
There is a lot of waste occuring in the supermarket as well. Fully stocked, abundant-looking produce is appealing to customers - marketing says this communicates freshness and encourages customers to make a purchase. But, at the end of the day, whatever isn't purchased goes into the bin.
In addition to perfectly stacked produce, supermarkets (by way of consumer demand - at least partially) stock perfectly shaped and colored produce. Misshapen, discolored, or dinged items (also known as 'ugly food') are either overlooked and eventually thrown out, or they aren't stocked in the first place. Stores often don't accept ugly food; it comes out of the box, and goes directly into the dumpster.
What can you do to reduce food waste?
Although a very big and complicated issue, don't doubt that your daily habits can and will make a difference. Experts have projected that reducing food losses by just 15% would provide enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year, helping to sharply reduce incidences of food insecurity for millions.
- Pack a doggy bag. Bring home whatever you can't finish when eating out, and enjoy the leftovers the next day.
- Plan your meals and stick to a list. Shop only for the ingredients on your list and eat through everything before stocking up again.
- Compost your kitchen scraps. If there are restrictions in your neighborhood, find out if your town has a composting program. Check out our compost guide for more in-depth information about composting.
- Redefine 'ugly'. Food can never be ugly - if it’s edible, it’s perfect! Besides, if you don’t buy that apple with a little insect bite (or the curved cucumber), it'll go in the trash.
- Sign the What the Fork? petition from End Food Waste, which tells large retailers to please stock Ugly Food.
- Start a conversation. Check out the produce at your local market - is it all perfectly formed and coloured with no dings? Then have a polite chat with the produce manager - ask them to start stocking ugly food. They could package it up as ugly food soup stock or juicing kits, or alternatively suggest that the store donate ugly food to a soup kitchen or food pantry.
We need a culture shift
Start by educating yourself and then spread the word to affect change. Let's change the way we look at food and perusade businesses and organizations to do the same. We have the power to make the practice of throwing away edible food as socially unacceptable as littering.