Waste Not, Want Not: Reducing Food Waste Is Everyone’s Responsibility

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD

Most people have no idea how much food they throw away every day. We live in a nation where food is plentiful and we don’t pay much attention to the amount thrown in the trash. The amount of wasted food in the United States could fill a football stadium daily.

By the Numbers, It Is Estimated that:

  • One third of all food produced globally is wasted which is more than 2 billion tons
  • 1.3 billion tons of food is not consumed a year
  • 40 percent of the food grown/raised in the United States is not eaten
  • There has been a 50 percent rise in food waste since 1974
  • 300 million barrels of oil are used to produce wasted food
  • Globally 750 billion dollars is lost annually on food waste
  • 7 percent of greenhouse gases in our environment are the result of food waste

Impact on the Environment and Economy

When we throw food in the trash, we’re throwing away much more than food. Beyond the cost of the food, consider the economic impact of the time, energy, water, gasoline, labor, disposal and lost profit of foods that go into the garbage.

The typical American family tosses out about $1,500 of food annually. Food waste is not only a loss to our pocketbooks, but it presents a growing problem to the environment. Food waste is the largest component in U.S. landfills and generates a significant amount of methane – a potent greenhouse gas associated with climate change. We generate 135 million tons of greenhouse gases from our landfills each year.

Water is a precious commodity, yet the amount of water used on food that goes to waste is huge, estimated at 25 percent of fresh water is wasted.

Nutritional Impact

From farm to fork, about half of the food produced goes to waste or about three-quarters of a pound per day per person. At home, most of us throw away one-quarter of the food we purchase or grow. Vegetables are among the most often wasted.

We are throwing away trillions of calories that could nourish our bodies and feed those in need. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, from 2012 to 2014 there were about 805 million hungry people globally. Reducing food waste has the potential to feed the chronically undernourished.

Waste Streams

Imperfect produce, school lunches, uneaten leftovers, too much food on the buffet, excessive portions in restaurants and moldy foods in the refrigerator are just a few examples of where we waste food.

There are two major streams of food waste, during preparation and in plate waste. Examples of preparation waste are the trimmings, spoiled food and overproduction of dishes. Plate waste occurs when you are over served and can’t finish what is on your plate.

How You Can Do to Make a Difference

Ideally, each of us can work harder to prevent, reduce or donate wasted food. Listed below are just a few examples of how we can reduce food waste:

  • Store cut fruits and vegetables in see-through, airtight containers.
  • Learn to decode expiration dates so food is not discarded if it is still good.
  • Toss leftovers into the freezer before they go bad. Be sure to label and date them.
  • After grocery shopping, store food immediately to preserve freshness and shelf life.
  • Cheese stored in wax paper is less likely to mold because it breathes.
  • Be open minded to enjoying produce that is not perfect in appearance.
  • Crisp wilted veggies by soaking in an ice water bath.
  • Use vegetable trimmings in stocks that can be used for grains or soups.
  • Plan your meals and purchase only as much food as you need.
  • Compost food scraps.
  • Donate nutritious, safe food to food banks.

Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack has made a goal to help Americans cut food waste in half. To meet this goal, each of us needs to do our part to be responsible when buying food and limit the amount we waste in the garbage every day. The government is encouraging farmers to donate imperfect produce to the hungry. 

Sources: United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization