Food Waste in America

Food Waste in America

Nearly half of the food we produce in the United States is wasted. As a long-time environmental educator for a local municipality in partnership with a school district, I am pretty familiar with trash and recycling. I have coordinated lots of school-aged students while they sorted and separated recyclable items and compostable food from the lunch waste. The results of this messy, stinky activity provided both the city and the school district with definitive data. Nearly 300 pounds per day were being thrown away at each site. Of this waste, 15% was milk cartons (sometimes full, unopened milk cartons), 70% was food (all forms, veggies, meat, cheese, and some wrappers) and only 5% was Styrofoam trays and spork packets and other non-recyclable trash.

I repeat these statistics with an indiscernible sense of hope to many volunteers, potential funders, community leaders, friends and family members.  But the truth is, until I conducted a home audit, I was not sure if I was shielded from scrutiny.  What does nearly 50% look like for an average household financially? In terms of volume? Graphically? Well, I decided to check it out and to be honest about the findings no matter how embarrassing it was.

To start, me, my eleven-year-old son, one cat and one dog spend approximately $400 a month on food. In this example, nearly $200 per month is wasted. That’s almost $2,400 per year!

I usually throw out one full trash bag once per week. The bag weighs roughly 25 lbs. (Yes, I actually put my smelly, messy trash bag on my scale). It was the first thing that was on my scale in months anyway. That equates to much less than the US average of 4.5 to 5 pounds per person per day or nearly 1860 pounds per year. My 1,300 pounds is still much less for US standards and tracks with Europeans who average 1,500 pounds per person per year. 

The Green Schools Program I helped developed, necessitated working with the local trash hauler, EJ Harrison and a national nonprofit, The Carton Council.  Together, we were able to set up diversion programs in each of the elementary schools.  I presented to each classroom with a 30 to 60-minute presentation to educate and prepare the kids. We created a 5-minute video that could be shown in classrooms prior to implementation and finally, myself and volunteers helped students during the first week of implementation at each school lunch session to sort and place items in the appropriate receptacles. We even came up with a catchy acronym based off a long-time presenter, Dr. Rot (dump your milk, recycle your carton, remove your trash, off-load your compost and table your tray.) 

While this program was highly successful, it failed to address the food waste from shelf-stable products, unopened milk and uneaten fruit that was placed on a ‘share table.’  Back then, the Good Samaritan Food Law as less known and there was a more doubt that the food was safe to be either restocked or donated. 

Since that time, the EPA has since identified a more effective way to reduce organic food waste, which is first and foremost, reduce over-consumption with proper planning and then to donate wholesome, surplus food before it spoils. There are many organizations working to solve this issue and collectively they are diverting millions of pounds of edible food from landfills, donating it to those in our community who lack access to affordable, nutritious food.

Gleaning was something commonly practiced during the turn of the first century. As farmers cleared the last of their fields, the community was allowed to enter and take what culls were left. And during the lean times of war, many people planted Victory Gardens.  This is where canning and other food preservation tactics were best employed and widely used. But, after the industrialization of the food system and modern conveniences like refrigeration and processing, the stigma associated with ‘frugality’ shifted as incomes rose and this practice was less popular.

But farming isn’t like it was a few hundred years ago. Today, less than 2% of US population is involved in bringing food to tables of American families when just a few decades ago, when nearly half of the population was involved in some part of the food shed. And let’s be honest. Most of the farmers in in this region don’t feed the local people; in fact less than 2% of the food grown in the County stays in the County. The majority of it enters the global food supply chain where, as mentioned before, nearly half of it is wasted.  Farmers, especially the small to mid-sized farms are challenged to offer living wages and turn a profit in the highly competitive global supply chain. 

Sell-by dates can also leave consumers confused. Companies use a variety of (unregulated) terms like “best by”, “use before” and “sell by” that confuse consumers, wholesale distributors and retailers alike. This misunderstanding is estimated to cost Americans nearly $30 billion annually.

The worst part about US food policy is that multinational corporations, identifying as farmers, gain multiple government subsidies to grow industrial-scale cash crops we know as wheat, soybeans and corn. This is then turned into feedstock for cattle (33%), biofuels (16%) and the rest is made into various products. Of which an unknown amount, is processed into shelf-stable commodities like breads, rice, canned vegetables and other packaged foods that are sold to food banks to administer supplemental nutrition programs funded by Feeding America and the USDA.  

COVID-19 has illuminated many of the challenges in our global and national food systems.  

Getting back to my trash can.  How do I throw out less than half of what my neighbors do?  What kinds of practices am I employing to reduce food waste at home?

  1. Buy Local. More and more grocery stores and restaurants are celebrating the bounty that surrounds our communities. There are local, small to medium-sized farmers who believe in organic, no-till, pesticide and GMO-free food production.
    Thankfully, the mainstream is starting to have an appetite for this as well (sorry, couldn’t help myself). If you opt for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box or shop at a local farmers market you can pick and choose what you want and how much you receive weekly instead of buying items in bulk from a conventional grocery store — which often leads to food waste.
  2. Budget. Make a budget (and with that, a sensible, nutritious, healthy meal plan) and stick to it. I do this thing I call “pantry cooking” where every couple of weeks, I inventory what I have in my cabinets and come up with recipes that match my available ingredients. It saves money and clears out my cabinets. Additionally, I consider a simple inventory management rule of FIFO or First In, First Out, which means I am rotating my stock to ensure I use items before they spoil.
  3. Recycle food. Yes, you can make amazingly delicious and nutritious meals from scraps. Consider Bone Broth, all the rage now in health food stores, but it’s easy to make from leftover roasted chicken (available from most grocery stores) and the cuttings and leftovers from veggies. Simmer that all up into a very healthy and nutritious broth that you can use to steam veggies, cook proteins and grains. It adds flavor and nutrition. You can turn stale bread into breadcrumbs or savory bread pudding. You can freeze fruits and veggies to be used later in soups or smoothies.
  4. Compost. After you make the delicious broth, take veggie scraps (and honestly, at this point, all scraps) to the compost pile that you hardly use in your back yard. Add a mix of vegetable clippings, browns (dried leaves, shredded cardboard) and grass clipping. It will break down naturally into a rich and reusable base for your very own vegetable garden; which, by the way leads me to suggestion number 5.
  5. Grow your Own.  Tell me the truth! Would you waste a perfectly good tomato if you grew it yourself? If you grew it, all on your own, lovingly, painstakingly, watering it weekly, chasing away critters, would you consider wasting it? Then why do we feel it is okay to do the same thing with a tomato grown by a local farmer? I repeat. Grown your own vegetables. You will love it. Trust me.
  6. Get involved! There are plenty of local organizations that offer volunteer and educational opportunities to be more food savvy. For example, where I live, there is a school program that teaches students about agriculture.  You can volunteer with food recovery organizations that are sprouting up (yes, I did it again) all over the place.  And check out the Slow Food Movement.  
  7. Try Meatless Mondays. It takes approximately 600 gallons of water to make one cheeseburger. Think of the millions of cheeseburgers wasted every day. Drive by any feed lot (I-5 California) and you will get a very certain truth well up in your gut and it’s not indigestion. It is guilt. We mistreat animals and we then carelessly heave away their value with indiscriminate consumerism.
  8. Donate. Either your time or your overstocked pantry is a priceless gift of selflessness. There are tons of pantries that support the working poor, the migrant workers who pick our food buy can’t afford to buy it, or families living paycheck to paycheck. Everyone is trying to do the best they can with what they have. If you have more than you need, why not share?
  9. Pack your own lunch.  Whether it is your lunch or your child’s, by packing it yourself, you are ensuring that you both are eating a wholesome meal that is better for the planet too.  You are likely saving money.  And you can pack what you want to eat (what your child will eat) and not create any unwanted leftovers that may spoil or have to be thrown out.  
  10. Slow Down. I am guilty of moving too fast, multi-tasking, and simply living at the edge of my marginal productivity. The truth is, we are all a little overworked and it was beginning to show. COVID-19 has forced us to slow down and take stock of (yep, I love doing that) what is really important. Let’s take some of these lessons we’ve learned during this pandemic and apply them to our daily lives when it finally resumes.    

In the end, we control the food system.  It is not the other way around. We drive the profits and popularity of one item over another.  Collectively, we can advocate for a healthier foodshed.  One that is equitable, healthy and sustainable. 

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