Waste Not...Want Not

Americans have a global reputation for eating vast quantities of food. As a result, there are more overweight people in the U.S. than anywhere in the world. Now it looks like U.S. consumers can add an equally embarrassing reputation for throwing out more food than anyone else.  According to a study produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit, international environmental advocacy group, as much as forty percent of food in the United States is never eaten. 

That amounts to $165 billion a year in waste, or 20 pounds of food annually for every man, woman and child in the US. Think of it as dumping 80 quarter-pound hamburger patties in the garbage each month. 

Americans waste 10 times more food than Asian countries and American waste is up 50% since the 1970s. 

Most of the waste occurs in the home. American families throw out approximately 25% of all the food and beverages they buy. Food is so cheap and plentiful in the United States that Americans just don't value it properly. Impulse buys, sales, and incentives to buy in bulk are some of the reasons why Americans buy more food than they can eat. 

Part of the problem comes from spontaneous decisions to eat out when there's still food in the fridge. And when Americans do cook at home, they make far more than they can consume. The average size of the U.S. dinner plate is 36% bigger now than it was in 1960. 

Portion sizes account for significant food loss in restaurants, too. Seventeen percent of the food served in restaurants is not eaten. Portion sizes can be up to eight times larger than USDA or FDA standard serving sizes. Particularly wasteful are restaurants that serve buffets, because health code restrictions restrict buffet food from being reused or donated. 

Among the biggest wasters of food are food retailers. They overstock displays of fresh produce to give an impression of bounty, leaving items at the bottom bruised and not fit to sell. They make too much ready-to-eat food so as much as 50% gets thrown out. And they throw out food in damaged or outdated promotional package that is still edible.

There is also a problem on farms. Approximately 7% of planted fields in the United States are not harvested each year. Growers either can't get a good enough price for their crop to make harvest profitable, or they over-planted and have more crop than there is demand for. Citrus, fruit, and grape packers estimate that as much as 20% to 50% of the food they produce never gets marketed. 

Although the economic figures are staggering, the unnecessary high toll on natural resources and environmental implications are more worrisome. Food production accounts for 80% of the country's fresh water consumption. A single hamburger takes 660 gallons of water to produce. Wasted food means that 25% of that fresh water is being wasted. 

Food waste also contributes to global warming. Experts say that food rotting in landfills accounts for 25% of U.S. methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere as long as 15 years and is 20 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. 

Food labels are culprits, too. Consumers often confuse "sell-by" dates with "use-by" dates. On average, grocery stores throw out nearly $2,500 worth of food each day because the products have neared their sell-by expiration date. Yet most of this food is still perfectly edible. 

In many states, it's legal to sell food past its expiration date but many stores do not because they think it looks bad. Most stores, in fact, pull items 2 to 3 days before the sell-by date 

An unfortunate truth of all this is that the more food consumers waste, the more those in the food industry are able to sell. This is true throughout the supply chain where waste downstream translates to higher sales for anyone upstream. That needs to change. 

In a generation, some nine billion people will be living in a world where the increasing scarcity of natural resources and environmental dynamics more and more affect individuals and society. A prodigious waste of food is simply not a sensible option in a desirable future. 

The fact of the matter is that the world now produces enough food to feed everyone in the world, yet one in every six people goes hungry. If Americans could reduce food waste by just 15%, it could feed more than 25 million of the 50 million Americans who go hungry each year.

Source: Good Neighbor Newsletter - Feb 2013

Laura Key, Real Estate Agent - 310.866.8422 - Laura.A.Key@gmail.com