FOOD IN THE U.S. SEEMS CHEAP, UNTIL YOU FACTOR IN PRODUCTION AND WASTE
Food waste makes its own significant contribution to the climate crisis, and on hard-pressed household budgets. Some of this is easily fixed. First, a few compelling numbers.
The energy required to produce all foods, from grains to meat, is enormous. About one-quarter of all energy generated, according to a 2018 study in Science. Within that are the greenhouse-gas emissions that escape from decomposing food thrown away each day, amounting to six percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. As much as 40 percent of food in the U.S. is discarded. That adds up to 40 million tons a year, with each person averaging nearly a pound of food waste each day. Food waste is the single largest component of US landfills. Each American family wastes an average of $1,600 a year on excess food. This needs to change.
There are three main reasons that food gets wasted in the United States. The first is loss during production and retail: Fruits and vegetables face a 20 percent loss during production, 12 percent during distribution and retail, and a further 28 percent are lost by consumers. The second reason is that many consumers have been conditioned to pass over foods that don’t look perfect. Those pieces are tossed in the bin. The third reason is that shoppers, restaurants, and schools tend to overbuy. Portions are not carefully considered.
Food in this country is some of the cheapest on the planet. We grow enough to provide food for other countries that struggle with food insecurity. Restaurants tend to buy enough to serve the highest predicted number of customers per day, and customers expect and receive only fresh food. In the home, where cost is the driving reason for the purchase of many items, we tend to overbuy what is on sale. We’ve been encouraged to buy in bulk in the U.S. We fill our fridges once a week, often with an eye for the bargain more than for the amount we will actually use.
HOW TO WASTE LESS
But where food is expensive, the shopper tends to buy in smaller amounts, shopping daily and making good use of the food on hand. If the food is purchased for a recipe and carried home each day, it is less likely that the food will go uneaten.
This is a good strategy to adapt, except for the daily trip to the store. Plan more carefully in terms of quantity when you shop. Work out a week’s menu in advance and shop to fulfill that. Try to take note of what your family might throw out each week. This can easily be done if you use a compost container and it’s your measurement. Keep a diary for a week. Note which items tend to get tossed before they are used.
Reducing helps here too. While we may feel good that we are composting our waste), it takes time and energy. Even more obvious: It feels wrong to throw away what someone else could use or really needs.
Today, lots of organizations are working to solve the problem of food waste. One supermarket in Finland holds a “happy hour” where foods on the eve of expiration are sold for deep markdowns. Some apps connect unused food items with the people that want them, and some restaurants serve food that has just reached its sell-by date, making for creative menus each night. Others donate used meals and food to soup kitchens and food banks; you could, too. Many supermarkets donate food with damaged packaging to community organizations.
Throwing away food seems sloppy and thoughtless, but often it is simply a mistake, a miscalculation. Careful planning and careful buying can really help us to do far less of it. And naturally, a Sunday soup is a delicious use of those limp carrots and bendy celery stalks in the bottom of the vegetable drawer. Sources: NRDC, USDA, World Data.