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How To Wage War On Food Waste

Two Saturdays after Thanksgiving, I slept in. At around 11 a.m., I padded into the living room with a feeling of quiet contentment. My husband, Peter, had been up for a few hours, during which time he'd read the paper, made coffee, cleaned out the fridge, and taken out the trash.

Our refrigerator had been getting difficult to close, jammed as it was with two-week-old turkey scraps, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and other Thanksgiving leftovers that nobody had eaten, plus the wilting greens and vegetables that never became salad. There were partially full containers of sour milk, dried-out slabs of poorly wrapped cheese, and three half-full tubs of hummus. Peter had cleared it all out, and I was aghast.

That was my job, I said.

Peter stared back, perplexed.

I mean, my job, I insisted -- as in researching the environmental impact of food waste. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to tell him that to write this story, I'd be tallying up our own cast-off food items. I stood at the kitchen window, my forehead pressed against the cold glass, peering down into the airshaft where our apartment building's garbage cans are stored. At that moment, I may have been the only woman on the planet who was annoyed with her husband for cleaning out the fridge and taking out the trash while she slept.

Peter and I are part of a much larger problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that Americans waste 30 percent of all edible food produced, bought, and sold in this country, although it acknowledges that this figure is probably low. Recently, two separate groups of scientists, one at the University of Arizona and another at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), published estimates of 40 percent or more. Add up all the losses that occur throughout the food chain, the NIH researchers say, and Americans, on average, waste 1,400 calories a day per person, or about two full meals.

As kids, we were all admonished to finish what's on our plate for the sake of those starving children in poor, faraway countries. Among environmental issues, however, food waste barely registers as a concern. Yet when we do the math, tallying all the resources required to grow the food that is lost as it journeys from farm to processor to plate and beyond, the consequences of our wastefulness are staggering: 25 percent of all freshwater and 4 percent of all oil consumed in this country are used to produce food that is never eaten.

Some 13 percent of all municipal solid waste consists of food scraps and edible cast-offs from residences and food-service establishments -- restaurants, cafeterias, and the like. That's about 30 million tons a year, or enough food to feed all of Canada during that same period. When all that food decomposes in landfills, one by-product is methane, which has 20 times the global-warming potency of carbon dioxide. Based on Environmental Protection Agency data, rotting food may be responsible for about one-tenth of all anthropogenic methane emissions.

Part of the problem is the heterogeneous nature of food waste -- there is no single culprit, just many diffuse sources that add up to a slow and steady bleed on the economy and the environment. Supermarkets discard misshapen yet perfectly edible tomatoes, for example, because they don't look perfect to picky shoppers; convenience stores cook too many hot dogs on snowy days when customers are scarce. Back on the farm, approximately 7 percent of crops are not harvested each year because of extreme weather events, pest infestations, or, more commonly, economic factors that diminish producers' willingness to bring their products to market: a bumper crop can reduce commodity prices to the point where the costs of harvesting are greater than the value of the crop.

SHORT TAKE: Reuse, Recycle

It's funny to think that the old, familiar phrase -- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle -- also applies to the food we eat, but it does, says Darby Hoover, an NRDC expert on solid waste. Individual consumers can donate extra canned  and nonperishable goods. Restaurants, institutions, and commercial venues can go one step further, donating perishable items, too. Feeding America, a nonprofit hunger-relief group, maintains a database of local food banks that participate in food recovery efforts.

If you're ready to start composting at home, check out NRDC's Simple Steps for photos and instructions.

Simple Steps is looking to start a conversation about American habits and values, the perils of a throwaway society, and the wisdom of thriftier generations past. Wendy Gordon kicks off the series with her article "My Mother's Shirt and Other Values We Got From Our Parents."

But the biggest players in the food industry -- farms, processors, and supermarket chains -- are not the largest contributors to food waste. Compared with what we toss out at restaurants and in our own homes, the nation's supermarkets stack up relatively well. According to USDA statistics, in 1995, some 5.4 billion pounds of food were lost at the retail level, while 91 billion pounds were lost in America's kitchens, restaurants, and institutional cafeterias. In other words, food-service and consumer loss make up 95 percent of all food waste, which means most of the responsibility falls on those who prepare the food we eat, whether it's a homemade meal, a dinner at a sit-down restaurant, or the Egg McMuffin we gobble down during the car ride to work. How, exactly, those numbers break down is poorly understood.

"There has been very little done on consumer-level food loss," laments Jean Buzby, a senior economist at the USDA's Economic Research Service. Buzby maintains estimates for losses incurred from the farm to the market, but equivalent records for consumer losses do not exist. As a result, Buzby can't say how much edible food is lost in cafeteria-style dining halls versus mom-and-pop restaurants or, for that matter, any other place we scarf down a meal. As for what happens at home, Buzby explains, researchers have trouble quantifying food loss because some of it never enters the municipal waste stream. "We don't know what gets put down the disposal or fed to the dog," she says.

The squishy trash bags I ended up retrieving from the bins outside our apartment building illustrated the dilemma: not only are we largely unaware of the consequences of food waste, but we also have a hard time imagining that we waste as much as we do. The amount of turkey Peter and I threw out on one day amounted to 1,465 calories, or about seven servings. Add that to the approximately 780 calories' worth of mashed potatoes (homemade, with butter and whole milk) that I gathered up -- though considering how slippery the potatoes were in my rubber-gloved hands, I'm sure I didn't get them all. Plus the hummus, the milk, and the cheese. Statistically speaking, our throwaways were perfectly average: specialty items, plus fruits, veggies, and dairy products, which are quick to spoil, especially if bought in excess amounts. And although the tailings of our feast had left me with more wasted food than I would have tossed during an average week, the underlying reasons were the same: I didn't know how much food I'd need for our holiday dinner, and I tried out some new dishes that were not as popular as I had hoped.

I recounted my story to Kevin Hall, the lead author of the recent NIH study, and he laughed. It was a problem familiar to him.

"I eat the same darn thing over and over, and therefore I know how much to buy," he says. "I know I eat a pear a day, so once a week I can go and buy myself seven pears. But if I start changing it up or varying the size of the pears, I don't know what to do."

Hall and his colleagues refer to the "push effect," which is similar to the "wealth effect": have more money, will spend more money. "In the supersize-me world, people will eat more, but they won't eat all of what they are given," he says. "If we have all this excess in the supply chain, the system will find ways to sell it to you. They will push from the farm to your fork, and you will eat a little bit more, and you will throw out a little bit more."

Planning meals better, using leftovers creatively, and making just enough -- instead of too much -- seem like obvious, simple solutions. But they matter, Hall explains, because we don't have good solutions for dialing back the push effect. That's something he's trying to change. In May, he will gather with experts on food and waste issues to start to look for top-down fixes to the problem.

Consumers can do the most good by embracing the good old "Three Rs": reduce, reuse, recycle. Food recovery programs play an important role by collecting surplus food from supermarkets, dining halls, and restaurants and delivering it to food banks and homeless shelters, where it is badly needed. For apple cores, potato peels, and other inedible food scraps, there's composting-at home and, in a handful of places, on the municipal level.

I'm working on the first "R" (Reduce!) right now. For starters, I'm sticking to what I know in the kitchen, cooking dishes I know I can prepare in just the right amounts. Peter and I are ordering takeout less, which means fewer jumbo-size portions that get partially eaten and partially thrown away. I'm also spreading the word, recounting my new-found knowledge to others. And the more I talk, the more I discover that my friends are as frustrated as I am. They, too, seem to buy more than what they need, often in packages that bear baffling sell-by, use-by, and other food expiry codes.

At dinner not long ago I confessed my food foibles to my friend Sarah, who in turn lamented the frequency with which she finds herself confronted by a refrigerator laden with wilting greens. "Really," she said with a laugh. "Who needs that much cilantro?"

image of lwright
Brooklyn-based journalist Laura Wright Treadway is a contributing editor to OnEarth and a former senior editor at the magazine. With degrees in environmental science and geology, as well as stints at Scientific American and Discover, she's also our f... READ MORE >

We fight against food waste!

The purpose of Stop Wasting Food movement is to fight food waste and over-consuming. Every Danish citizen in average throws 63 kilos (138 pounds) of good edible food away every year. While there are about 6 million children worldwide dying of hunger every year. Food waste is also very bad for the environment, because it causes raise in CO2 emissions and thus plays a part in global warming.

Read about us mere:

http://www.stopspildafmad.dk/inenglish.html

Yes, it's so sad to know there are a lot of food waste around when there are millions out there who are hungry and have nothing to eat. Everyone should have proper food management to lessen food waste and you're right it's also bad for the environment. bread makers   

I've become very concerned about food waste and it's relationship to poverty and hunger worldwide. The statistics you present are alarming. I feel called to make this my focus in charitable giving and community awareness. thanks for the article!

Great article, important information. Could there be some sort of campaign to encourage food editors to run articles about this food waste problem & to provide very specific suggestions for how to combat it.

On the home front, try this. It works for me. Post on the fridge two lists: one for ingredients that you've put in the freezer compartment (labels please)*, and one for the dishes you'd like to make soon. I think of the refrigerator as the place where I'm staging current meals, and the freezer as the place where I'm building future ones. I've been pleasantly surprised to see how this simple practice draws my attention to how I can use little bits of this 'n' that as I move along through the week, how I can creatively "recycle" meals etc. We have definitely saved money and reduced waste with this little scheme.

*Note: you do not need to have a large freezer compartment for this approach to work.

I reduced my waste of quickly perishable greens and herbs by growing them myself in pots. This way, the parsley and chives I didn't use one week can be harvested the following week. As a side benefit, I also get better vitamin content from these items.

Smaller refridgerators and more frequent shopping?

I read the How To Wage War on Food Waste with great interest as I have reduced my fresh food waste to near zero. This past year I bought a set of Debbie Meyer green boxes for food storage. Since then I have bought more boxes, sent them as gifts because they work! Berries last for well over a week, lettus 2-3 weeks easy, beans 3 weeks. Bread, a month or more. They have paid for themselves over and over. I'm not the biggest veggie eater but now I by the bag of lettus knowing it will last a week or two, if I don't get to it. If everyone used these boxes we could feed so many more people, or reduce what is grown preserving water resources. Less food going to the dump to trun into green house gases. I could sell these door to door, they are the best!

BTW - I didn't care for the bags, the boxes are easier to work with and last a life time.

Here is a review: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1024916/debbie_meyer_green_boxe...

Here is where to buy: http://kitchen-dining.hsn.com/debbie-meyer-greenboxes-20-piece-set_p-369...

Laura Wright missed the most obvious solution: use leftovers! The excess of mashed potatoes? Buy leeks and make vichyssoise. Milk? Homemade pudding. Odd bits of cheese? Yummy baked ziti! Turkey scraps? turkey carcass soup. Too many pears? Make chutney!

My parents were products of the Great Depression. Nothing was thrown out, but usually re-heated beyond recognition. In my early 20s I bought "Culinary Classics and Improvisations," by Michael Field. Lately, I’ve learned to create unusual soups by surveying the fridge and figuring out which leftovers will “marry” best in the soup pot. This past December, for six days I had no heat, no running water, no electricity – and a fridge and deep freeze full of food. My gas range was working, so I started with the most vulnerable food in the deep freeze – three pounds of frozen catfish. It made an amazing curried catfish chowder. I set the pot of cooked chowder out in the 18 inches of snow on my deck, where it survived nicely until the power came on. Thawed ground turkey became spaghetti sauce.

Wright suggests buying less take-out. Fine for city folks, but people like me don’t live within miles of takeout place, can’t afford it, or refuse to buy prepared food that is over-loaded with salt, fat and carbs and short on vitamins, proteins.

What we need is to re-learn skills we began to forget when processed foods became so popular in the 1950s - cake mixes, watery canned soup, packaged pudding – and that wonder of wonders, the TV dinner. The Food Network is more about entertainment than good nutrition. Even the popularity of “buying local” has its ironies: I was shopping at my favorite farm stand last August and told clerk how much I enjoyed her ggplant. “Never had it myself,” she muttered. “Don’t know how to cook it.”

It is not because we don’t have time to shop and cook: it is because we have not made it a priority.

Karolyn Wrightson
30 Oxbow Crossing
Weaverville, NC 28787

The answer to fridge problem is SOUP. I submitted comments earlier, which included my basic soup recipe. It takes care of green wilted things, bits of casseroles, leftover meat and chicken and just about everything. Basic is Vegan. Make it just before you go shopping each week. Season separate lots with different flavors. Freeze in small containers. Mark with date and rotate. Defrost or thaw quickly. Great for those last minute meals with multi-grain bread, salad and cheese.

Best article ever. I thank you for enlightening readers with this information. I plan to share with all my friends and family.

Thank you for a valuable, informative piece on food waste - much food for thought!

I'd like to offer a suggestion. Not to take away from a good article, but do you think we could lose this idea of 'Waging War' on everything?! ('Waging War on Food Waste') I know it's a very prevalent terminology in our culture, but I think that's precisely because it reflects a mentality and a general cultural direction or attitude that brought us to the point where we need an NRDC and magazines like 'OnEarth' in the first place.
If we can find different ways of expressing our intention to improve the world we live in, then just maybe it will have an effect on the way we live our lives as well.

I'm writing a thesis on food waste right now. Awareness is growing, but it is still an unseen epidemic-- epidemic in that the numbers are colossal, and unseen in that the vast majority of people don't know about it. Most food waste occurs in the retail industry and private households. Overproduction of food has many consequences from water waste, farm land exhaustion, declining vitamin and mineral content of our food, inhumane treatment of livestock, overuse of petroleum, and contributes to global warming. We need to reduce the amount of food we buy, and recover what is wasted to feed the poor. (Recovering 25% of food waste may likely feed all of America's hungry.) Some things you can do for your household is to plan meals, make a grocery list, and stick to it. Avoid impulse buys or buying more because it's on sale. (Just because you buy more, doesn't mean you'll eat more.) Also, serve less to your family. Anyone can go back for seconds. Food left on the plate is garbage, food left on the platter goes back in the fridge.

Hummus freezes. Mashed potatoes freeze. Turkey freezes. Why don't you freeze some of that stuff instead of letting it sit in the refrigerator until it decays. A microwave will defrost and warm them up quickly.

Also, try having fewer shelves in your refrigerator. That way there is not only less room for excess food, but you can easily see what you have.

Thank you for this article. My roommate and I just recently got a compost bin (finally!) and we've been on our friends and family to do the same. What about folks with food disposals in their sinks? Are they contributing to the problem, or does their waste go to the same place as my compost? Thanks!

A great way to reduce food waste is to freeze fruit and vegetables when they get to be less than fresh. Chop up broccoli, kale, etc and freeze to use in soups. Freeze cilantro and jalepenos to make salsa later, or make the salsa and freeze it. Slice strawberries and bag berries to use in cobblers or to make a pancake syrup later.
Also, use vegetable peels and wilting veggies to make soup stock, which you can then use or freeze.
Grow your own herbs so you can pick what you need!

I found the EPA has a web page dedicated specifically to reducing food waste for businesses and at home www.epa.gov/foodrecovery

Get chickens! They'll happily devour most any food waste and produce new food as a result: eggs! More and more urban areas are allowing them these days.

I work in a small rural elementary school. The waste is overwhelming. Paper, juice packs and boxes, individually wrapped snack wrappers, water bottles and then the food on top of that. Teaching kids to recycle should be easy, but it is apparent to me that very few do it at home. I would like to find a smaller, energy smart refrigerator. I am going to remove one of the shelves in my refrigerator as another poster here suggested. Great idea! I am also working on eating what we have in our cupboards and freezer before we buy more food. I figure it is a good way to start the upcoming garden season, but my family is not too happy!

Thank you for this article on the subject I have been railing about for 50 years. Don't stock up on food that will go bad. Buy high quality and organic food and buy less. You can actually save money and have less food to throw out. If you can get to the high quality food stores by walking, you can go more often and always have fresh food. Don't buy ahead except for some staples like rice which can last up to a year. Eat better, eat less and forget junk food. Every time you throw out food, calculate the cost and keep a tally. Donate that amount of money to a food charity.

SOUP!! I agree with Anne Kohl, Karolyn Wrightson, and others. Last Christmas I was appalled that my mother-in-law was throwing out the turkey carcass, especially as it hadn't even been picked clean! I retrieved it from the trash to make a soup that she'd never learned to make, telling her that my Depression-reared parents taught me that throwing out good food was a sin.

When we were kids, however, saving the carcass for soup was not about conserving food. We considered it the best part of the whole event! We had turkey dinner the week before Thanksgiving and then, while camping in the desert over Thanksgiving weekend, we relished the very best meal of the holiday, the turkey soup that Mom had made from all of the left-overs. Our typical Thanksgiving dinner menu was a perfect soup-producer: flavorful meat, mash potato thickener, creamed onions and succotash for vegetables - they're all made to go together, which is probably why she planned that menu.

The gross wastefulness of the US food system is the result of the "wall of food" model, which is the strategy employed for finding as many buyers as possible to return a profit, rather than producing what is needed to meet some rationally measured need.

Human nature and the economics of food yields more profit in making the stuff absolutely omnipresent, bursting at the seams in every nook and cranny of society so that no possible sale is overlooked, even when most is not needed or desired. The ratio of acceptable loss-to-sale can get very high and still yield a profit when, as with many food sales, one is paying more for the convenience and the delivery than the food itself.

This yields the irony of the high-priced donuts and hot dogs at the convenience store being the items that suffer the greatest waste ratio. With food, the higher something is priced, the more it is wasted!

Great article that sheds light on an important problem. I've been buying Converted Organics all-natural fertilizer. Converted Organics recycles food waste from restaurants, supermarkets, etc. and process it to become all-natural fertilizer. Love that waste that would have gone to landfills (and produce methane gases) is now feeding my plants and garden. Safe and sustainable -- a nice combination.

As a Dietary Manager in a Nursing Home I am very interested in the waste we have at each meal. I will study this article and the many ways to stop the food waste in my kitchen. The importance of this issue and the many actions we can take as groups and individuals will make a difference. Summer school teachers should use this as projects for their students.