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Food waste in America: a growing concern

November 26th, 2008

By Paula Minahan
Green Right Now

Dumpster diving as the perfect solution to a sustainable lifestyle?

It could be, according to a report from The Daily Show. Seems forest-living, oil-spurning electrical engineer Tod Kershaw has perfected the art. “My favorite dumpster is Trader Joe’s. It’s just so wonderful; it’s the nirvana of dumpsters. There’s great food, a lot of it is organic and very rarely do you find maggots in there.”

If you say so, Tod.

But kidding aside – and Kershaw isn’t – the fact he can feed his family on discarded grocery items is telling. Telling us that food waste in America is out of control.

Food scraps or leftovers, according to the EPA, comprise the single-largest component of waste by weight in the United States. Food tossed from restaurants during preparation and in uneaten portions, and from households, institutions and industrial sources.

Figures vary and are often dated, but all point to the problem’s massive scale:

  • 96 billion pounds of food – or 27% of the 356 billion pounds of edible food available – is wasted each year in the U.S. according to the U.S, Department of Agriculture. On his Wasted Food blog, Jonathan Bloom places that figure at more than 150 billion pounds.
  • The amount of food required to eliminate hunger in the U.S. is only 5 billion pounds annually, says charity Feeding America. If just 5 percent of food scraps were recovered, states the USDA, it would equal a day’s worth of food for 4 million people; recovery of 25 percent would feed 20 million.
  • It costs the nation around $1 billion annually to dispose of all its food waste. (EPA)

This excessive waste not only eats at our pocketbooks to the tune of $130 billion plus a year, but at our ethical core: Some 49 million people could benefit from these discarded resources. The question then becomes, “How do we change?”

From the Farm . . . to the Market . . . to the Table . . . to the Dump

Analyzing where loss begins is critical to figuring out viable solutions. Back on the farm, Mother Nature wreaks havoc through ice storms, washouts and any number of weather-related events, along with pests and insects. Selective harvesting – choosing only blemish-free fruits and vegetables – also accounts for significant waste. A 2004 study by the University of Arizona found 40 to 50 percent of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten.

Then there’s loss in food storage, handling and transporting it an average 1,500 miles. When a food item reaches the grocer’s shelf, it contends with overstocking, improper rotation, damaged packaging, seasonality and a host of other factors. And once a perishable product reaches its “sell by” date, out it goes. The fact is, predicting demand can be tricky.

But the two major sources of food waste are food service establishments and consumers – that’s right, you and me. Household loss may come from shunned leftovers, spoiled fruits and veggies, over buying, spilled milk . . . it all adds up.

Timothy Jones, a PhD in Anthropology who headed the 2004 UA study, updated its findings for today’s higher Consumer Price Index. “I’ll give you some new figures readjusted to the government’s own CPI,” he said. “On the farm, the losses are about $38 billion annually; on the commercial or retail food side, it’s about $44 billion; and in households, it’s now up to $54 billion.”


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