Food Waste in America


Just over a week ago on the 27th, the moon had a lot on its plate. It was a super moon, a harvest moon, and a full lunar eclipse. Was it stunning? Probably, but to be honest, it was hard for me to see with all the clouds. Unfortunately, there’s another shadow on the metaphorical harvest that’s difficult to see. A third of our food in America is lying on the ground, rotting and uneaten, and the problem far pre-dates apocalyptic moon happenings. While we normally may only see a few scraps thrown away here or a few spoiled products disposed of there, in reality, a whopping 31% of available food in the US goes uneaten(around 133 billion lbs.), and that’s only on the retail and consumer levels. So how does all this food go to waste? It’s a process that starts in the field and ends in the trashcan, losing more and more along the way.

The first part of the waste process begins the same place food does – wherever it’s grown. One aspect comes from over-planting as a way to hedge against weather and disease. The other is an issue of aesthetics. If produce doesn’t fit our idea of a perfect (insert name of produce) in color and shape, then we tend not to buy it. If, say, an apple fits the criteria for a perfect apple and is the epitome of apple-ness (think Plato’s forms), then it gets graded as grade 1. If not, it will be graded as grade 2 and lose up to 2/3rds of its value. This means the given piece of produce may no longer be financially viable to harvest, and stays on the vine or on the ground. In the end, around 7% of produce gets left in the field , which doesn’t even get counted toward the USDA’s estimated 31%.

The next wave of waste happens at the grocery store and retail level. Each year, stores toss around $15 billion worth of fruits and vegetables. Rather than appear understocked, groceries stores routinely overstock and dispose of the extras. “Sale by” dates and their relatives do their own part to heartily contribute to waste. Stores throw away an average of $2,300 worth of product due to the date printed on the box. Most of this food is still edible.

Restaurants and other food services are part of the waste machine as well. In order to ensure that every item on the menu is almost always available, more food than can be used is kept on hand. Customers are involved as well, as an average of 17% of food is left on the plate unfinished, and it doesn’t always seem worth taking home. Rules and policy dictate disposal as well. At McDonald’s, fries are allowed to bask in the glowing light of a heat lamp for seven minutes before they’re deemed too old to benefit society and trashed. All fast food is literally decimated this way, given that it’s the fate of one tenth of all the food produced.

With all of this food going uneaten up to this point, the consumer gets away guilt-free, right? Actually, the average American household throws away around 14-25% of the food and beverages they buy, equaling a tidy $1,365-$2,275 annually. Part of this is due to overstocking the pantry, as things don’t get used up because there’s no way to eat it all. The other factor is disposing of things because they’re past their expiration date. Thanks, expiration dates, for keeping us safe .

Finally, even disposal plays a role in food going uneaten. A plethora of food that could be donated gets disposed of instead. Some of this is due to difficulties of getting the food to where it can do some good, some due to donating food not being financially viable for business, and a lot just has to do with the fear of being sued. It turns out, you can’t get sued for good faith food donations thanks to the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act , but this isn’t common knowledge. Of what gets thrown away, regardless of the reason, only 3% gets composted. Of the rest, what isn’t incinerated ends up in a landfill. Food waste makes up a fifth of landfills, and the conditions in which it decomposes result in methane gas, a big player in the global warming game. In fact, food in landfills is the source of a quarter of the U.S.’s methane emissions.

What does it all mean? Locally, food that could go to starving families instead wastes away uneaten. Globally, food waste contributes to the greenhouse effect and global warming in a big way, not to mention all of the water and other resources that go to producing food that won’t be eaten. Together, it’s kind of like allocating a portion of natural resources to slowly poisoning the earth. On a personal level, it costs a lot of money to waste food. Now, I know a nice, neat summary doesn’t change the difficulty of dealing with an issue of a national, if not global, scale. What about a summary of the two biggest factors that directly relate to the consumer?

Issue one: the aesthetics of food. In America, our food has to look delicious. This may not even be entirely our fault. It’s what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the grocery store. But no matter where this got started down the line, it can be unlearned like bad grammar. If what sales is dictated by the consumer (there’s probably a big discussion there I’m choosing to avoid), then opening our hearts to produce that’s pretty on the inside could be a first step. It starts with the decision to give a peach a chance, even if it is shaped more like a heart than a butt.

Issue two: expiration dates. Fun fact – with the exception of infant formula and baby food, no sale by or expiration date is federally mandated. Laws in most states require milk and perishables to be pulled from the shelf by their sale by date, but other than that, these dates are strictly advisory. Most stores feel it looks better to stock products that are in date, though most are still edible after. In fact, the dating on products pertains to quality, not safety. For canned goods, the date is generally based on the warranty on the can, not the longevity of the food inside it.

So if the dates are not required, why include them at all? It could be out of the goodness of companies’ hearts to protect our safety, or at least, our enjoyment of our food. Perhaps it’s just to keep the manufacturer from being sued. However, the more suspicious among us may feel that the sooner one has to throw away a product, the sooner one has to buy another to replace it. Of course, the obvious choice is to do what you feel is best for your health and the health of your family; but if one feels like bucking the system, there are ways to do so in a relatively safe manner. The key is information, and while there are a myriad of resources at one’s disposal, websites like this one can help you determine the longevity of individual foods, storage advice to increase aid longevity, and how to tell if something really has gone bad.

So, what do I think? If you answered that you don’t care what I think, you’re on the right track. Issues that affect things on a personal, local, and global scale are too big to be based on someone else’s opinion. For issues of this gravity, one has to make one’s own informed decisions (and I do hope I’ve been informative) and then act on them. Do what you feel is right. You don’t have to explain why you ate pasta that was a month past its best by date or an avocado that wasn’t perfectly symmetrical to anyone. But if you do, it may just cause a ripple. Your friends and family will care more about your opinion than that of the guy that wrote the blog or newsletter you read. Whatever path you choose, I leave you with this advice (which I admittedly got from a Spiderman cartoon), “be the change you wish to see.”

One thought on “Food Waste in America

  1. Hi Matt,
    Thank you so much for the wonderful article in The Tater Times. You were so incredible kind and generous in everything you wrote.

    Thank you again!

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