Paying the High Price of Food Waste

“We waste enough food to fill the Rose Bowl every day,” says Jonathan Bloom, M.A., who spoke at the American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo in Denver on October 20, 2009. As a result of researching food waste for the past five years, Bloom started the website, www.WastedFood.com, and is currently writing a book on food waste in America. If the size of the Rose Bowl is hard to fathom, here’s another shocking number: more than 40 percent of the food produced for consumption in the U.S. will never be eaten. In fact, food waste in America has increased by about 50 percent since 1974, reaching more than 1,400 calories per person per day. That’s almost half of the daily calorie requirement for the average person. These were the findings of researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, published in November 2009 in the Public Library of Science (PLOS.)

Why are we food wasters? The answer to that question is complicated and requires introspection. “We?re not taught to value food. In the past, we hardly wasted any food. During the Great Depression, people had to scrimp to have enough to eat,” says Bloom. Chances are you recall your mother admonishing you to “finish your plate”, but those words aren’t heard as frequently today. Bloom believes it’s all because food is now abundant and cheap, adding, “Food is at 10 percent of total household expenditures, it’s at an all-time low. America grows enough food to provide 3,900 calories per person per day.”

Restaurants are another culprit behind food waste. “Portions are out of control. At buffets, much of the food is thrown out, either when people take too much or at the end of the day,” says Bloom. It’s easy to observe the sheer volume of food waste every day at restaurants, cafeterias, schools and hospitals across the land. And it’s not a coincidence that the rate of food waste has increased along with our appetite for dining out.

The “perfect food” expectation is another big contributor. “If it’s not pristine in appearance, then we throw it out,” says Bloom, who has studied food waste in many settings including supermarkets. On Bloom’s website, you can check out a photo gallery of supermarket foods that ended up in the dumpster?from gorgeous strawberries to bakery cakes. Our penchant for perfect food is fueling food waste all the way from food production to the dinner table. “People go by the rule, when in doubt, throw it out,” adds Bloom.

In the end, we overproduce food in America at all levels?from the farm and food manufacturing to supermarkets, restaurants and home kitchens. When food is overproduced beyond our needs, it is often allowed to spoil before it can be put to good use.

The high cost of food waste. Why should you care about food waste? Here’s the toll that food waste places on our country.

  • Environmental. Food waste exacts a high cost on the environment in more ways than one. “Wasting food squanders resources like energy, water and soil. Seventeen percent of the energy in the U.S. is used to grow and distribute food. Ninety percent of the water in the U.S. is for agriculture usage. We are losing soil in the U.S. ten times faster than we can replenish it,” stresses Bloom. According to the PLOS study, wasted food uses about 300 million barrels of oil per year (four percent of the total U.S. oil consumption), and more than one-fourth of the total freshwater consumption.

The PLOS study researchers also reported that food waste rotting in landfills produces substantial quantities of methane, a gas with 25-fold more potent global warming potential than carbon dioxide. “Landfills are the number two source of human-related methane. Food accounts for 18 percent of the landfill contents,” explains Bloom. Food waste is unsustainable.

  • Economical. Food waste carries a hefty price tag, estimated at $150 billion per year on a dollar per pound basis. In today’s economic climate, these figures are hard to ignore. This cost is carried all the way from the farm to your fork, where it is ultimately reflected on your tab. Food waste can eat up a larger portion of your household dollars that might better be spent elsewhere.

  • Social. Consider that the rising rate of food waste coincides with an increasing number of hungry people in America, and you?ve got an inkling of the social dilemma caused by food waste. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2008, 49.1 million people were food insecure (i.e., lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources), up from 36.2 million in 2007. “We have so much excess food, why not feed people?” asks Bloom.

It seems our culture of food thrift has gone by the wayside. Unfortunately, we are teaching a whole new generation that food is disposable. Bloom adds, “We are teaching our kids to waste food. Schools have a massive amount of food waste. The message we should send our kids is that food waste is not OK. Food should be respected.”

Putting an end to food waste. The bright side of food waste is that it’s largely fixable. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urges the “3 Rs” for food: reduce, reuse and recycle. By first reducing the amount of food wasted’smaller portions at restaurants and less food rejects in supermarkets’then recycling food by feeding hungry people, feeding animals, industrial uses (i.e. rendering used fats and oils) and composting, you can reduce the amount of food that ends up in the landfill.

Food recovery programs in action. Ever wonder what happens to day-old bread from the bakery, bruised bananas in the produce aisle or stale donuts from the donut shop? While oftentimes these foods end up in a dumpster, food recovery programs are working across the country to find a home for these edible, but not sellable foods. Food recovery agencies coordinate volunteers to pick up food donated by supermarkets, restaurants and farms. Businesses that participate in food recovery can receive tax benefits for their donations, as well as freedom from liability lawsuits thanks to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. If you know of a business that might want to support food recovery, contact the Society of St. Andrew (www.endhunger.org) for more information.

?Sharon Palmer, R.D.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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