Every year, between 40% and 50% of the food produced in this country is wasted, according to a food safety Extension specialist at the Michigan State University and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Food waste happens at all stages of production including harvesting, packing as well as restaurant preparation. We are all guilty of wasting food. Who hasn't had carrots or deli ham spoil in the refrigerator? The same is true for a loaf of bread or a bag of chips or a bunch of bananas.
People waste food by not eating leftovers or not finishing leftovers before they spoil in the refrigerator. Consumers also waste food by not managing the food they store in their pantry and freezer. Many people are guilty of overbuying meats and frozen foods and not consuming it before it goes bad in the freezer. Restaurants are also guilty of throwing away tons of food that goes uneaten.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American family of four ends up throwing away an equivalent of $2,275 annually in food. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month and it means Americans are throwing out $165 billion worth of food each year. Food waste is the single largest source of solid waste in U.S. landfills. Just a 15% reduction in losses in the U.S. food supply would save enough food to feed 25 million Americans annually.
U.S. food wastes have jumped 50% since the 1970s, the Natural Resources Defense Council says. Food waste is causing grocery stores and other sellers to lose as much as $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and vegetables alone, with about half of the nationwide supply going uneaten.
Consumers throw away food that is past its "sell by" date or "best if eaten by" date or when it is "expired" even though the food is still safe to eat.
Fresh products make up most of the food wasted at home. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that a typical American throws out 40% of fresh fish, 23% of eggs, and 20% of milk. Citrus fruits and cherries top the list for fruits, and sweet potatoes and onions are commonly wasted vegetables.
Farmers are also guilty of wasting food. Produce growers in particular often grow too much product to avoid risking not growing enough to fill orders.
Most consumers, farmers, grocers, and restaurant owners don't think there is anything they can do to reduce food waste. In fact, many people deny that they are wasting food, or they grossly underestimate how much food they are actually wasting. According to a poll conducted in 2013 by Sustainable America, the average person estimated that 41% of the food produced in this country was wasted while they thought only 18% was going to waste in their own homes.
What can be done about it?
Plenty. The first step is to make the public and farmers aware of the problem. State and local governments could launch campaigns, similar to what is being done in Europe, to minimize food waste. The European Parliament passed a resolution to reduce food waste by 50% by 2020 and declared 2014 as the "European year against food waste." Five years ago, the United Kingdom launched a public awareness campaign called "Love Food Hate Waste." Since then, food waste in the UK has dropped by 18%.
The Natural Resources Defense Council says that Americans can help reduce food waste by learning when food goes bad, buying fruits and vegetables that aren't perfect, and storing and cooking food with a goal of reducing food waste.
Feeding the world is already a struggle and will become even more difficult by 2050 with 9 billion to 10 billion people predicted to live on the planet. This makes minimizing food waste even more important. It is estimated that we'll need up to 70% more food to feed that many people. Developing habits to save food now could dramatically reduce the need for increased food production in the future.
Investing in food waste reduction strategies can create the social benefit of reducing hunger, the environmental benefit of efficient resource use and the financial benefit of saving families, businesses, and farmers a significant amount of money. So do yourself, your country and the world a favor and eat those leftovers!