By any measure, the amount, impacts, and lost opportunity of our food waste are enormous. The USDA estimates that 133 billion pounds of food at the retail and consumer level goes uneaten; in a country where 12 % of households, and 1 in 3 Coloradans, lack consistent access to adequate food. Wasted food represents 22% of our total waste stream to landfills accounting for 4% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Wasted resources including energy, pesticides, labor, land, and fertilizer invested in growing, transportation, storage, and distribution amplify the economic and environmental impacts.
How does this happen?
Consumer demand for choice, abundance, and aesthetic perfection means waste is built-in to our food supply chain. Thirty percent of fruits and vegetables are left to rot on the farm, either because it is “ugly”, or because demand has shifted. Grocers order more than will sell to maintain those delightful towers of color built to tantalize us in the produce aisles and prepared food cases are commonly kept stocked until the end of the day after which the food is tossed.
An unclear, inconsistent food dating system also plays a part. Contrary to what is widely believed, packaging dates generally do not indicate that a product or spoiled or unsafe. Rather, they are often indicative of the date before which the product is at its freshest or best:
- Sell-by-date: How long the store can display the product.
- Use-by-date: The last date that the product is at peak quality.
- Best-before-date: The best date for flavor and quality.
Rounding out the list of food-wasting culprits are excessive portion sizes, improper food storage, and inefficient meal planning, leading to purchasing more than will be consumed.
Stopping the madness
By employing best practices, grocers, caterers and restaurants, and institutions can make a big dent in the problem. Grocers can streamline their inventories, discount older items instead of throwing them away, improve stock rotation and utilize damaged or ugly products in prepared food offerings. Restaurants and institutions can reduce portions, streamline menus and repurpose food.
Then there are food banks and food rescue organizations. Thanks to technology, logistics are increasingly streamlined, matching donors and recipients with an efficiency that has transformed a once slow, clunky process into nimble hub-and-spoke networks. Colorado-based We Don’t Waste, a non-profit that connects excess food donors with community-based agencies that feed the hungry throughout the Front Range, has recovered over 165 million servings of food since 2009.
The Good News
We can all be part of the solution – 43% of wasted food in the US is generated at home. Discarded food from our refrigerators, pantries, and leftovers costs the average family of four a whopping $1,500-$1,800 annually. SaveTheFood.com was developed specifically to help consumers mend their food-wasting ways. Pay them a visit for tips on everything from meal planning and shopping to preparation, storage, and food sharing.
Then go see what’s hiding in the back of your refrigerator before it’s too late.
Sources: Refed.org, Savethefood.org, FoodPrint.org, rts.com, nrdc.org, moveforhunger.org, usda.gov, wedontwaste.org