It starts with you.
An estimated 30-40 percent of the United States’ food supply is wasted. In 2010, about 31 percent of food loss occurred at the retail or customer levels, which corresponds to 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food. Meanwhile, 40 million Americans are living in food-insecure households, or households that lack consistent access to enough food to live a healthy life. This includes 6.5 million households with children and 9.7 million with very low food security.
Growing, processing, and transporting food that is never eaten costs Americans $218 billion per year, or about 1.3 percent of GDP. That adds up to 52 million additional tons of food in landfills, and these mountains of food waste are problematic for the entire planet. Food waste collectively consumes 21 percent of all freshwater, 19 percent of all fertilizer, 18 percent of cropland, and 21 percent of landfill volume. In effect, resources that people have been fighting to preserve for decades are being lost due to the wastefulness of the average household.
The following chart was created using data from the 2011 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Global Food Losses and Food Waste report. It tracks the percent food loss by weight for each commodity group in each step of the food supply chain for North America and Oceania. The percentages in each step represent the percent of food remaining from the total weight of produced food.
The “Consumption” section represents the percent of food that is used in households and businesses. This stage of the food supply chain accounts for much of the overall food waste, and it is the step that everyday consumers have the most control over. This is why combatting food waste starts with you — the consumer. Each year, an estimated 218.9 pounds of food is wasted per person. Making small lifestyle changes can decrease these numbers as well as feed hungry Americans and keep the planet clean.
Like most global issues, combatting food waste starts with education. There are dozens of wonderful resources outlining the sources of food waste and how it can be prevented. The United States Environmental Protection Agency offers planning, storage, prep and thriftiness tips for reducing household waste. One highlight to remember is that most produce that appears past its prime is still perfectly safe and delicious in soups, casseroles, stir-fries, sauces, baked goods, pancakes and smoothies.
A quick and entertaining way to get up to speed is to watch one of the many videos created to educate people about food waste. In response to the Food and Agriculture Organization estimating that one-third of the food produced for consumption is lost or wasted, National Geographic took to tackling the issue. They created a series of videos about eating ugly produce, hoping to change the standards on which fruits and vegetables make it to our plates. “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste” is a 90-minute film produced by American chef Anthony Bourdain. This 2017 documentary received 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and does a great job educating viewers about food waste problems and solutions. The trailer alone (provided below) is worth the watch, both informative and inspiring.
Much of the food that is lost or wasted is safe to eat, and with a little extra effort, food can go to people in need instead of landfills. The chart below was created from Feeding America’s “Hunger in America 2014” study, which revealed that 46.5 million Americans rely on food banks. That is one in seven Americans. Yet, every year, the existence of these food banks is threatened by lack of donations. Over 7,000 struggling agencies were asked what issues and deficiencies were challenging their ability to continue to provide services. The results are displayed below, organized by the level of threat.
Despite popular belief, canned foods such as beans, chicken, fish, and vegetables are not the only items that food agencies need and accept. Applesauce, cooking oils, granola bars, herbs, spices, nuts, pasta, rice, peanut butter, and cereal are just a few examples of the many uncanned items that are commonly needed. Feeding America especially requests dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. It is easy to find local donation centers using Google searches and websites such as FoodPantries.org. Donating can be made even easier through various donation transportation services which pick up donations from numerous neighborhood locations and take them to food banks free of charge.
This last way to prevent food waste is the easiest one yet — eat the food. Remember that buying in bulk only saves money if all the food is actually used, so often it is cheaper to buy smaller quantities of food for more deliberate purposes. Using better preparation and storage techniques can keep food fresher longer and therefore increase the chance that it is used before spoiling. There are abundant resources on how to can, dehydrate, and freeze foods to maximize their lifespan and make the absolute most of every grocery trip. The right storage can make perishable foods last many times longer than they would otherwise. Home Storage Solutions offers printer-friendly pages that outline the storage time of various common household foods, including freezer and refrigerator storage times. They even have a pantry inventory form to help people keep track of when they buy things so they can be sure to use the food before it expires. Lifestyles changes such as these may be small, but they do make a huge difference in the aggregate. Combatting food waste starts with you!
The tool below can be used to help you make the most of the ingredients you have, saving a trip to the grocery. Type in two ingredients that are expiring soon or that you’d like to use and see what kind of recipes use those items.