Food waste is a major global problem that is connected to many other issues our society faces: climate change, hunger and poverty, and the sustainability of our oceans and farmland. The impact of food waste has both environmental and societal implications. Food waste is also land waste, energy waste, water waste, and labor waste. When food gets thrown away, it means the resources poured into growing, producing, processing, storing, transporting, preparing, storing, and discarding the food get wasted as well. Wasted food is also food that could be feeding someone who is hungry. Tackling the issue of food waste is one of food justice, environmental justice, and social justice.
There are many sources of wasted food, such as unsold food from retail stores, plate waste (prepared food left on a plate) at restaurants, or by-products from food processing facilities. The unfortunate reality of food waste is that it occurs at every level of the industrial food system, from farms to supermarkets to individual households.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, food waste and food insecurity rates both skyrocketed. Many households hoarded food after panic buying at the grocery store, which resulted in lots of milk spoiling and produce wilting. The U.S. food system also experienced disruptions, especially when the nationwide shutdown first occurred. When restaurants, schools, and corporate cafeterias closed, farmers were left with an excess of perishable produce with no sales outlets. Even in a typical year, farms usually leave close to half their crops unharvested. Deliberate overproduction is a root cause of food waste on a large scale, since many supermarkets and grocery stores purchase more food than they sell and toss out perfectly good food as a result.
The issues of food waste and hunger seem like a paradox. How can over 30-40% of food be wasted, yet 1 in 6 people struggle with hunger? Yet the problems are intricately linked. Safe, excess food that is currently thrown away could help people experiencing hunger and reduce food insecurity. So what can we do about it?
According to the U.S. EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, there are several strategies to fighting food waste, some of which should be higher priorities and are more impactful than others. The two best ways to prevent and divert wasted food is through source reduction (reducing the amount of surplus food generated) and feeding people (recovering the food to donate to food banks and other organizations to feed hungry people). These food management strategies create the most benefits for the environment, society, and economy.
Food Waste Statistics
33% of all food produced globally is wasted each year.
In 2019, the U.S. let 35% of the 229 million tons of food available go unsold or uneaten.
The average family in the U.S. wastes $1,866 worth of food every year.
Food is the single largest category of material placed in municipal landfills, where it emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 14.1 percent of these emissions in 2017.
Up to 50% of food is lost at the production stage alone. That is about 1.6 billion tons of raw food products that is never turned to consumable food to feed the hungry.
Saving even just a fourth of the total global food waste volume can feed everyone experiencing hunger in the world.
Ways to Fight Food Waste
When you throw away food, you are also throwing away your money. On top of the environmental impact of food waste, wasting food also has a big economic impact. Here are some ways you can fight food waste in your household.
Plan ahead and don’t overbuy. Take note of what is already in your fridge and pantry and plan your meals for the week. Use a shopping list every time you go to the grocery store to keep you focused on what you truly need and prevent you from buying food you don’t need.
Eat your leftovers. Whether you are eating out at a restaurant or making a meal at home, you should save your leftovers. Not only will it prevent food waste, it’s also a great way to save money. The freezer and microwave are your friends! You can freeze and reheat any leftovers you have to make a quick meal the next day, or you can get creative and turn those leftovers into a new dish!
Understand date labels. There is no reason to toss food after its “best before” date since that date relates to food quality rather than safety. This date is flexible and is not an indicator of the food’s safety; rather, it’s a suggestion of when you should eat it by to enjoy the best quality.
Donate your nonperishables. If you open up your pantry and notice you have some nonperishables sitting there that you just aren’t interested in eating anymore, consider donating them to Second Harvest or another organization that will accept them. It’s always better to try and donate them rather than letting them go to waste, especially if you know you won’t eat them.
Compost. Sometimes, no matter your best efforts to fight it, you are left with some food waste. While it is not at the top of the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, composting (the fifth tier) is still an effective way at reducing the amount of food waste that arrives in landfills. Organic waste in landfills generate a lot of methane, so when you compost, you can significantly reduce methane emissions. When you turn food scraps into compost, you can also feed and nourish the soil, improve water quality, and grow future crops. In 2018, the EPA estimates that roughly 4.1% of wasted food (2.6 million tons of food) was composted.
Nonprofits Fighting Food Waste
If you are looking for other ways to join the fight against food waste and learn more about the issue, here are some nonprofits that focus on the top two tiers of the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy: source reduction and feeding hungry people.
Food Recovery Network (FRN) is a national nonprofit that engages students at colleges and universities in its mission to fight waste and feed people. What started as four students at the University of Maryland in 2011 noticing good dining hall food being wasted at the end of the day has turned into the largest student-led movement fighting food waste and working to end hunger in America, with over 4 million pounds of food diverted from landfills to create over 3 million meals. FRN chapters recover perishable food that would otherwise go to waste from their community and campus’s dining halls and donate it to help feed those in need. By connecting students at 140 campuses across the country to their local partner agencies, FRN is closer to achieving its goal of changing the norm from food waste to food recovery, so that recovered surplus food can feed everyone who is hungry in the United States.
ReFED is another national nonprofit that uses data-driven solutions to end food loss and waste across the U.S. food system. With actions grounded in data that can solve the food waste crisis, ReFED aims to achieve a 50% food waste reduction in accordance with the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. ReFED's ultimate vision is a “sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system that optimizes environmental resources, minimizes climate impacts, and makes the best use of the food we grow.” By targeting its effort towards both source reduction and food recovery, ReFED plays a key role in fighting food waste in the country.
Food banks also play a key role in food recovery, since they are able to accept leftover foods from supermarkets or households that would otherwise go to waste. Food recovery is a central component to Feeding America and its network of food banks across the country, with these organizations rescuing around 3.6 billion pounds of food every year. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996 is a key part of food recovery and donations. The federal act was created to encourage the donation of food and grocery products to qualified non-profit organizations and provides liability protection to food donors who donate in good faith (meaning your restaurant or company can be protected against liability when donating food to non-profits).
Have some food items you want to donate to Second Harvest Food Bank? We would be happy to accept them! Visit our website to learn how you can drop them off.
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