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Wasting AND Wanting: Food Waste in America

Written By: A. Wilt

May 2016

Wasting AND Wanting: Food Waste in America
Food waste is a little discussed but growing problem in the United States, with experts estimating that anywhere between 30 and 40 percent of all food grown, produced, prepared, and purchased in the United States goes to waste. For some perspective, that's about 20 pounds of food waste per person, per month. In dollars and cents, we're talking about $165 billion dollars worth of food that goes uneaten each year in the United States, which is a waste of the energy and resources used to produce it.

How Do We Waste Food?

Food loss and waste occurs throughout the entire food supply chain. At the upper end of the supply chain, lack of ability to harvest or efficiently process produce leads to waste. At the retail and consumer steps, much of the food is lost due to consumer choice.

In a market where we have an abundance of choices, we're naturally going to pick the glossiest, most perfect produce, and suppliers are naturally going to try to meet that demand. Those natural inclinations mean that produce that is so called 'ugly produce' is wasted solely for cosmetic reasons.


When we do get the food home from the market and stock our refrigerators and pantries, almost all of us are guilty of misunderstanding 'use by' and 'sell by' dates and throwing away safe and usable food. That waste is before we even account for our nation's tendency to over-purchase food and throw away uneaten leftovers.

Where Does the Food Go?

But where does this waste go?  That's become a problem many municipalities are looking to solve. Food waste currently makes up about 10 percent of the solid waste in our landfills. As it decomposes, it also gives off methane gas, so our economic issue is also becoming an environmental issue.

Municipalities like Philadelphia have responded to this problem by requiring all new residential construction to have in-sink food disposers. These disposers grind the food down into fine particles, which are then passed through an anaerobic digestion system. Some of the resulting byproduct of this process can be used to supplement the generation of electricity and heat.

Proponents of this system point out that much of the makeup of food waste is water. By breaking it down, we are able to clean and use that water, and use the resulting gases for energy elsewhere.

Wasting AND Wanting: Food Waste in America

The flipside is that there is an economic and environmental impact of the disposal systems themselves. A small in-home disposal could use up to 700 gallons of water a year. Further, though we breakdown the food into smaller particles, those particles don't just disappear, and much of the solid waste remaining is still sent to landfills. Finally, using food disposals puts byproducts, such as oil and grease, into our waste system, leading to sewer problems and backups, with additional costs on those fronts.

Others argue that we should be looking at composting systems that recycle the food waste, and in California, that's been the trend, with state law following suit. In 2014, California passed the Mandatory Commercial Organics Recycling Act, which called for businesses that produced at least 8 cubic yards of organic waste a week to arrange for composting of that material. The law took effect in April of 2016, so it remains to be seen how effective that will be.

In October of 2015, California also passed AB 1045, which gives teeth to municipal waste authority's ability to enforce recycling and compost ordinances. It also requires The California Environment Protection Agency and its partner agencies to develop and implement policies to keep organic waste out of landfills.

The federal government is also taking up the issue, and in December of 2015, Maine Representative Chellie Pingree introduced the Food Recovery Act, which also provides incentives to businesses for compost recycling. It's one of the most comprehensive food waste acts introduced, and covers everything from commercial composting down to providing guidance and regulation of food labeling to address the issue of consumer confusion over 'best by' and 'sell by' dates.

The Unspoken Problem and the Rejected Solution

We waste over a third of the food available to us in the US. That's a staggering number. What's even more staggering is that though we have such a large food loss and waste number, we also have 14 percent of Americans who are considered food insecure, meaning they are unable to consistently access enough nutrition necessary for health. 15.3 million children under the age of 18 live in food insecure households. The juxtaposition of the amount of food we waste next to the amount of hunger and want we have is heartbreaking.

There's one other major solution, which is often overlooked or rejected. Food recovery is the use of recovering wasted food and making it available to food banks and other organizations before it goes bad to address the problem of hunger. Nearly every major city in the US has such an organization. Many report that they are only able to recover a fraction of the food that is waste and that many restaurants and grocers are unwilling to work with them out of fear of liability.

Some of that fear is misplaced due to misinformation about Good Samaritan laws, which are in place to help protect those who donate food from liability if someone were to get ill from donated food. The Food Recovery Act introduced last year also aims to encourage farms, restaurants, and retailers to donate excess or that 'ugly' food to nonprofit organizations by implementing tax breaks to offset the costs of donating food.

Day to Day Solutions

The problem of waste and hunger seems huge and difficult for the average consumer to have any impact on. Sure, large grocery stores and restaurants can donate money and tighten up their supply lines, but what can the average person really do?

A lot more than you'd realize.

By shopping responsibly, both in shopping locally, and in purchasing in quantities we will use, we can help cut down on the energy and resources used to produce food. How we store our food will also affect how much we waste.

But the biggest thing we can do might be to become active and vocal about the problem of waste and hunger. As consumers we have power to influence with our pocketbook by spending our food dollars at grocery stores and restaurants that practice responsible waste management. By addressing the issue head on, we can help prevent it from being a dirty little secret, and perhaps in the process can waste less AND want less.

Wasting AND Wanting: Food Waste in America

AB-1045 Organic waste: composting. (2015, October 8). Retrieved from California Legislative Information.
Child Hunger Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from Feeding America.
Dana Gunders: Natural Resources Defense Council. (2012, August). Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. Retrieved from NRDC.
Felton, A. (2006, November 17). File:Landfill face.JPG. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2014. (n.d.). Retrieved from United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services.
H.R.4184-Food Recorvery Act of 2015. (n.d.). Retrieved from
petrr. (2008, April 13). File:Household food trash NY.jpg. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons:
U.S. Food Administration. Educational Division. Advertising Section. (01/15/1918 - 01/1919). (1917-1920). File:"Three Million Hungry People Are Watching Your Plate...Eat Less, Waste Nothing." - NARA - 512557.jpg. (National Archives and Records Administration, College Park; NAI # 512557) Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
United Nations Environment Programme, Regional Office of North America. (n.d.). Food Waste: The Facts. Retrieved from World Food
What is Anaerobic Digestion? (n.d.). Retrieved from American Biogas Council.


Other Articles of Interest:

American Dilemma: Pay Rent or Buy Food

Inflation, Deflation, and a Depression…Really?

Grocery Innovation: Meal Kits to Keep the Busy Family Healthy

Homegrown Goes Gangsta: Fixing our Food Supply with Co-ops and Urban Gardens


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