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.
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?"