Wasting America’s Food

Grocery shopping, for many, is a tedious task. With all that there is to do in today’s world, it can be hard to find the motivation to go wander through those endless aisles, trying to pick a box of cereal from a wall of hundreds. Worst of all, after all of that effort put into buying the prettiest apples and the most perfectly bruise-less peaches, there’s a good chance a sizable portion of that food will be thrown away.

Don’t worry, it’s not just you. America has a food waste problem, a very large one. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that between 31 to 40 percent of America’s food is thrown away, costing Americans over $161 billion annually. On an individual basis, researchers have calculated that the average household wastes over 0.7 pounds per day, which works out to around 20 pounds per month.

“Sell by” dates, intended for use by grocery stores, are a huge culprit. They are not an indication of when food has gone bad, but simply when it has reached its peak freshness and can no longer be considered top quality for sale. The food will still be good for many days after this date has passed.

“Use by” or “best by” dates are the ones meant for consumers. These indicate the dates at which your milk or meats will likely taste or smell a little off. They won’t be “expired” per say, they just won’t be at their best quality. However, many Americans perceive these dates as being the cut off for when the food is still edible, and end up tossing perfectly good food as a result.

Simply put, Americans are obsessed with eating only the freshest, most perfectly packaged foods. Anyone who’s spent some time in a produce section already knows this; we’re all guilty of closely inspecting fruits and vegetables, trying to find that perfect, blemish-free cucumber or that totally un-bruised apple. These small imperfections are not an indication of a product’s lack of freshness or quality, yet we treat them as such.

Supermarkets are well aware of this, and so they do their best to present only the prettiest fruits and vegetables, throwing away anything that doesn’t make the grade. That means that tons of bruised produce or foods in slightly damaged packaging–all perfectly fresh and edible–are deemed “unsellable” and thrown into dumpsters.

All of this wasted food has a variety of effects. Most obviously, food going into dumpsters is food that isn’t going to people in need. If Americans could save even 25 percent of the over $165 billion worth of food that is thrown away every year, we’d be able to feed more than 25 million people who are food insecure.

Tens of billions of pounds of food is thrown into landfills every year, producing massive amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. Currently, landfills account for 18 percent of America’s methane emissions, the third largest source of the gas in the US. Rather than wasting away in landfills, this excess food could potentially become fuel for anaerobic digesters, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating a considerable new energy source.

To top it all off, refuse food is costly to dispose of. As of 2009, food waste was responsible for more than one quarter of the United States’ consumption of fresh water and of more than 300 million barrels of oil every year. At a time when huge swaths of the country are suffering from droughts and oil is at a premium, this trend is especially harmful.

Solving this problem will be a monumental task, but not impossible. Many countries, like France, have passed legislation attempting to limit food waste and get this food into the hands of the poor. The man who proposed the legislation, French politician Arash Derambarsh, has teamed up with singer Bono to present the plan to the UN as a global strategy to ease world hunger and environmental destruction in one fell swoop.

It will take considerable time and resources to turn the tide of food waste and the impacts it has on both the macro and micro scale, but it’s an action that must be taken sooner rather than later. Our poverty-stricken populations, fresh water resources, and ozone layer are all depending on it.

Feature photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.