As we face a serious drought, many cities in California and elsewhere are working hard to waste less water. But we as a nation have yet to fully comprehend the equally important impact of wasting food.
Nearly one-third of the fruit, vegetables, grains, meat, and packaged foods produced across the globe gets tossed out every year. In the U.S., that figure can climb as high as 40%, to the tune of $165 billion in losses each year. Americans throw away an average of 20 pounds of food each month — costing them each between $28 and $43.
As Dana Gunders, staff scientist and “food waste warrior” at the Natural Resources Defense Council says in the new film “Just Eat It,” that’s like leaving the grocery store with four full bags of groceries and dropping one in the parking lot. But it’s not just our pocketbooks that feel the strain — our landfills, waterways, and atmosphere all suffer when we produce more than we consume and waste it in the process.
Much of the wasted food ends up rotting in landfills, releasing methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere. Nearly 25% of all freshwater consumed annually in the U.S. is associated with food waste. That's a little more than the volume of Lake Erie. And where there’s wasted food, there’s also wasted energy; approximately 2.5% of the U.S. energy budget is “thrown away” annually as food waste. “We’re creating climate change from our kitchen waste bins,” says Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food, in the film.
On the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, tackling the issue of food waste couldn’t be more critical. Small actions actually can make a big difference. As consumers, we can help curb the growing problem by understanding more about expiration dates, buying less, purchasing “ugly” fruits and veggies, and snatching up that last bunch of lettuce.
And there are also real opportunities for cities and businesses to keep mountains of food waste out of landfills. Now more than ever there is a spotlight on the issue via social media campaigns, online maps, food trucks, dumpster dining, businesses being built around waste, as well as chef Dan Barber’s recent pop up dinner series, wastED. There’s even an app to help us “eat down the fridge.”
This is a sizable, but solvable problem, and all hands on deck are needed. On a federal level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been working to raise awareness and work towards change. The United Nations also has a plan in place to tackle food waste over the next decade and a half, and the U.S. is poised to set national targets for reducing food waste as part of that, which could set the stage for much needed programs, attention, and funding to the issue.
While the industrial agriculture industry claims we need to scale up production to feed a growing population, the incredible level of wasted food suggests that having better policies in place could go a long way. As the U.N. noted in its recent report on world hunger, we grow enough food to feed the entire world population of 7 billion people — a lot of it just isn’t getting to them.
One of the first thing policymakers can do is take on the confusion caused by “sell by,” “use by,” or “best by” food labels. According to “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” most people don’t know that these dates are currently neither regulated nor standardized. Other than for infant formula, there are no federal or state laws regulating the length of time between when a food can be produced and/or packaged and the date on the package. And while these dates are not necessarily linked to food safety, they can have a major impact because many consumers throw away food they perceive as having “expired.”
The European Union is aggressively moving to reduce food waste by addressing these “best before” labels. As Bloom has noted, the shift could also prompt action on date labels here in the U.S. If that happens, American lawmakers could help trim million of tons annually from our collective household food waste.
There are other policies taking place nationwide, with several cities and states taking matters into their own hands. San Francisco passed the first city ordinance in 2009 that makes composting food waste mandatory. It’s now illegal to throw food and food waste in the trash in Seattle. In Massachusetts, businesses or institutions which throw out more than a ton of food a month are prohibited from sending it to a landfill. Vermont, Connecticut, Portland, and New York City are all reducing or working on sending less food waste to their landfills. As Gunders told me, while this on its own doesn’t ensure that people will eat all the food they buy, it does help make the huge volume of food going to waste more visible, which in turn can lead us to use it better.
Towards the end of “Just Eat It,” activist and author Tristam Stuart of Feeding the 5000 says poignantly that wasting food “is one of the most gratuitous acts of humans culture as it stands today. We’re trashing our land to grow food that no one eats.”
In a country so blessed by agricultural abundance, it’s a shame to allow for such an embarrassment of wasted riches. There are many social environmental problems which are monumental, but, as Gunders puts it, “Food waste we can handle. We can do something about it now."
Naomi Starkman is the founder and editor in chief of Civil Eats, a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system and the James Beard Foundation’s 2014 Publication of the Year.