Food Waste in America: A Missed Opportunity?

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America is the richest country in the world. This level of wealth and development is reflected in our food system. Overall as a nation we are able to feed a large majority of our people well. Our food is cheaper than most parts of the world making quality food accessible to many. Americans are generally well-nourished and benefit from a plethora of healthy (and unhealthy) food options. Yet our abundance in this department has created new realities that we must take a look at; the main one being food waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency about 38 million tons of perfectly good food ends up in landfills or incinerators each year.[1] To give you more context, that is equivalent to the weight of 104 Empire State Buildings.[2] This is a large amount of waste that puts a significant strain on our natural environment. Producing food is a resource intensive operation that requires large quantities of water, land and money. Looking at food waste alone, t is estimated that 21% of America’s total fresh water goes towards producing food that ends up in landfills.[3] Additionally, once the waste makes it to the landfill its effects do not stop there. As the organic matter decomposes it releases large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that contribute to climate change.

In addition to food waste’s environmental impact, there are social considerations that make the issue worth exploring. As it stands, over 40 million people in our country suffer from hunger. That is 1 in 6 Americans.[4]  With such a large amount of food waste it seems contradictory that anyone in our country should go hungry. The excessiveness of our waste in light of so much need highlights inefficiencies in our food system that need to be addressed.

Food waste occurs at every stage of the food system and has a high cost to society. From the farming and production stages of the supply chain to the distribution and consumption stages, a staggering $218 billion worth of food is wasted each year.[5] Among this food waste, fruits and vegetables are the most commonly discarded, making up one third of total waste and accounting for $160 billion in economic loss.[6] Another way of looking at our produce food waste is that almost 50% of all grown fruits and vegetables are wasted in some capacity, both on the consumer and production side. [7] One study found that on average a family of four typically throws out about $1,600 worth of produce each year.[8] And on the farm side, it has been estimated that approximately 20 billion pounds of produce is lost annually either due to poor storage, being fed to livestock or being left in the field to rot.[9] How can we improve the efficiency of our farming and distribution practices as well as adopt new behaviors at home that reduce food waste?

In 2015 the United States government began to take this question more seriously. It adopted its first national food waste and loss goal that aims to reduce our current output by 50% by the year 2030.[10] The purpose of a goal like this is to help organizations, governments and institutions work in partnership with one another to streamline action and mobilize resources in a focused way. A goal like this looks to leading actors and organizations in the field to compile best practices that can be nationally scaled. For example, Feeding America is a leading nonprofit organization that works at multiple stages of the food system to reduce food waste and redistribute the loss to those in need. Through programs that work with farms, manufacturers and consumer-facing businesses they are able to identify opportunities where food loss occurs to redirect surplus to families and communities.[11] Similarly, the Natural Resource Defense Council advocates for waste-reducing policies at the government and food industry level, such as changing confusing date labels, as well as campaigns that teach families how to waste less.[12] To meet the 2030 goal of cutting food waste in half America needs to learn from these organizations to devise a long term strategies for improving food security and conserving our natural resources.

[1] Foodforward.org

[2] Foodforward.org

[3] Feedingamerica.org

[4] Feedingamerica.org

[5] Feedingamerica.org

[6] Theatlantic.com

[7] Theatlantic.com

[8] Theatlantic.com

[9] Feedingamerica.org

[10] USDA.gov

[11] Feedingamerica.org

[12] NRDC.org

*Photo credit: Chris Malcolm, https://www.flickr.com/photos/103470868@N03/

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