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Americans throw away almost half of their food and it's creating a health, economic and environmental issue

How food waste is creating a health, economic and environmental problem

The food waste data in the US shows a growing multi-billion-dollar concern. Americans throw away up to 40% of their food, most on the consumer level, adding up to 38 million tons of waste and costing $218 billion each year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Families throw out approximately quarter of their groceries, which can cost the average family of four $1,365 to $2,275 annually. Keep in mind that while so much of edible and nutritious food goes uneaten, the US Department of Agriculture reports up to 13% of households lack a secure supply of food.

Beyond the quantity and financial loss, however, it largely contributes to health standards as well. There’s a growing nutritional waste that goes along with the food that never makes it to our plate. A report “Wasted Food, Wasted Nutrients” published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that “in 2012, enough food was discarded at the retail and consumer levels alone to provide 2,000 kcal per day to 84% of the US adult population.” (The USDA recommended daily intake is 2,000 kcal for adult women and 2,400 for adult men).

Photo credit: USDA

Marie Spiker, one of the authors of the study, told me their work drew from previous research efforts by the USDA to track and quantify food losses in the United States in terms of the amount, economic value and number of calories. “Those available resources, including data on the amount of losses for specific commodities, as well as the nutritional composition of these foods, made it possible to answer the nutrition waste question.”

Tossed are vital nutrients many Americans aren’t getting enough of daily. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans reported that several nutrients including dietary fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, D, and E are underconsumed in all population groups.

Whilst the average American doesn’t get enough dietary fiber, we toss enough of it to meet the recommended daily intake for 48 million men or 74 million women, the study revealed. The same is true for potassium, which the average American lacks. We waste enough for 59 million Americans. And the trend continues for magnesium and Vitamins A and D.

“Nutrients tell a different story from other metrics,” Spiker said. “For example, if I’ve been making an effort to eat more iron-rich foods, and I see that our nation’s daily food waste contains the equivalent of the recommended iron intake for two-thirds of the US population, this is a powerful message.”

Landfill in the US

The issue doesn’t stop at societal level but grows into an environmental problem. The majority of the wasted food ends up on large landfills where it’s left to rot becoming a major contributor to climate change by producing more greenhouse gas emissions than 37 million cars, the NRDC revealed. “The majority of those greenhouse gases are released by growing the food, though a portion is released as methane as food rot in landfills.” Dana Gunders, former senior scientist at the Food & Agriculture Program at NRDC wrote in the report.

“No matter how sustainable we grow food if we don’t eat it,” Gunders said noting that food waste is the number one contributor to landfills today.

After leaving NRDC in January this year, Gunders established her own company, Next Course LLC, to advise businesses, investors and government agencies on food waste reduction. She also published the “Waste Free Kitchen Handbook” to provide guidance and hands-on information as to how we can waste less food in our home.

Gunders says the majority of US shoppers tend to be unrealistic when browsing the isles in the grocery store. “When you’re shopping that’s when you commit to food,” she said. “We’re very aspirational in the grocery store and ambitious for cooking well and eating well that week, however, by Wednesday we through the frozen pizza in the oven.”

In her handbook, Gunders offers multiple ways one can make the most out of their food in the kitchen including buying more frozen veggies, which she says, has just as much nutrients as fresh ones, as well as freezing leftovers as oppose to scraping them into the trash can.

Both Spiker and Gunders agree that education plays an important role in reducing food waste.

“I think most of us are surprised by how much we waste,” Spiker said highlighting that she and a couple of her colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a national survey about perceptions of food waste. “We found that 75% of Americans think that they waste less than the average American. Clearly the numbers don’t add up here.”

Perishable foods, such as vegetables, fruits and dairy, tend to be wasted at a higher rate. Especially because often times we don’t use certain parts of the vegetables, such as the leaves of beets, or just end up eating out instead of preparing food at home.

A recently emerged root-to-stem movement, however, is gaining more attention with its premise to encourage households and restaurants to utilize food in its entirety.

“The root-to-stem movement is a great way to learn more about the foods we eat, and to get the most out of a product,” Spiker said adding that “getting the most out of our food includes its nutritional value, the money, the time we spent to purchase and prepare it, and the natural resources that went into growing and distributing it.”

On a global scale Whole Foods Market has been a strong advocate of the movement offering root-to-stem ready-to-eat meals along with recipes at its prepared food section. They call it “More taste, less waste” meals.

Prepared Food Coordinator of the Florida Region Brian Collaro said that it fits perfectly into their win-win-win business strategy. “We offer something delicious to our customers, help the environment and help the growers by buying their entire plant,” he said.

He also pointed out how the lack of education and knowledge of food and how to best use it largely contributes to it going to waste. “Many people don’t really know how much of a vegetable is edible,” he noted.

Having two new root-to-stem dishes available for eight weeks at a time gives customers the opportunity to try something different and realize that most parts of vegetables aren’t only edible but delicious and add flavor to the meal. “Usually the best way to fall in love with something is to taste it,” Collaro said, noting that once they like it, they’re more likely to make it at home.

As a result, it doesn’t only help reduce food waste, but also help growers by buying their entire product as oppose to leaving certain parts behind.

The American supermarket chain has procedures implemented to make sure that throwing food away is their last resort. Collaro said they don’t only recycle what they can, but also participate in food donation programs and work with a third party in order to deliver to charities to help those in need.

Food is wasted on many levels in the US, therefore solutions must work on multiple levels as well. An organization called ReFed, which Gunders is a founding member of, compared the cost-effectiveness of different approaches and found that the top two most promising solutions were consumer education campaigns and standardization of date labels. The two go hand-in-hand — for example, a lot of food is discarded because consumers are confused about what date labels mean. ReFed is a collaboration of more than 50 businesses, foundations, nonprofits, and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States.

Recycling and taking everything that can turn into a fertilizer also contributes to making sure the food doesn’t end up in another pile on the landfills.

ReFED estimated that 20%, more than 13.2 million tons, of the discarded food could be diverted from landfills by implementing a set of cost-effective activities with three goals: food recovery, composting, and waste prevention. These activities can contribute to the goal set by the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency to halve US food loss and waste by 2030.

“Shifting our own habits sends a powerful signal up the supply chain,” Spiker said. “Restaurants and retailers are very sensitive to consumer preferences, and if we send signals upstream that we are ready to buy less-than-perfect-looking produce or that we are willing to eat more parts of the plant, this can create change in the larger food system.”