When we think about waste in terms of food, we often think about the excessive plastic wrapping around our veggies. Most of us have never considered our food as waste as well. Across the world food is disposed of instead of being consumed by people. Whether the food spoils or doesn’t meet cosmetic standards, there are dozens of reasons why edible food gets wasted. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 40.7 million tons of food was lost or wasted in 2017.
According to Recycle Track Systems (RTS), this equates to 80 billions pounds, or roughly 1,000 empire state buildings! This problem is a growing issue, and affects our communities as well as the planet. In the USA alone, approximately 40% of our food is wasted or lost annually. This problem isn’t unique to the US, the FAO estimates that ⅓ of edible food by weight is wasted each year globally. There are two ways that food can be misused along the supply chain, these are known as food loss and food waste.
Food Waste vs Food Loss
While we may often use these terms interchangeably, there is a difference between food loss and food waste. Food can be damaged or thrown away anywhere along the supply chain – food loss and food waste occur at opposite ends of this line. This distinction may not seem important, but it helps us to pinpoint where along the line we are missing the opportunity to prevent edible food from being squandered.
Food loss refers to food that is disposed of at the food supplier level of the chain. This can range from harvest, postharvest, transportation, to processing, and packaging. Not all of this loss is due to human error – pests, weather, and disease can lead to food loss as well. This process ends at the retail level.
Here are some examples of food loss:
- Food that is left unpicked in the fields during harvest.
- Food that is damaged during handling.
- Produce that may fall out of a truck in transport.
- Food thrown away due to packaging issues or mislabeling.
- Food that does not meet the company’s size or cosmetic standards.
Food waste picks up where food loss ends – at the retail level. This includes retail, food service providers, all the way to the consumer. Waste at this level is less excusable than at the level food loss occurs. At this stage, most consumers and companies have power over their decisions in relation to food waste.
Here are some examples of food waste:
- A store throwing away food that has expired or spoiled before it was purchased.
- A store throwing away produce that does not meet cosmetic standards.
- A restaurant that throws away uneaten food at the end of the day.
- A consumer does not eat all of their meal at a restaurant.
- A consumer who throws away leftover food.
A significant part of the problem is the stigma we have about “ugly” food. We have become accustomed to perfectly shiny apples and blemish free onions – so much so that we have forgotten what produce actually looks like in nature. Much of the food we consume today comes from selective plant breeding that farmers and scientists have honed in over generations to meet the visual and taste demands of consumers. This selective breeding also helps generate higher crop yields, and are often chosen for their resistance to pests and disease. Due to the fact that we have become so familiarized with these carefully created crops, we now turn our nose up at even the smallest of bumps or bruises on our produce. Grocery stores will only stock the items they know people will buy, which doesn’t include imperfect produce. As consumers, we have the power to demand a change in the supply chain. Showing an interest in imperfect foods will reduce the amount of food that goes to waste in stores.
Why Does it Matter?
The truth is, 1 in 8 Americans is food insecure, which is approximately 40 million people. How are so many people going hungry when we are wasting 40 percent of our food? There are many factors that contribute to food insecurity, mainly income and employment. Areas where poverty is prominent may lack food stores. These low-income communities can become food deserts, where people are unable to get adequate nutritional food. By diverting our uneaten food waste to communities in need, we can improve the livelihoods of people while reducing our impact on the planet. Moreover, as global populations continue to grow, it is increasingly important that we can grow enough food to support everyone. Instead of forcing more crops out of the land, we can work to be more efficient in utilizing the crops we would typically waste.
Wasting edible food means wasting environmental resources. The energy and water that go into growing the food, along with the energy used to transport it, and the materials used to package it, are wasted along with the food. These wasted resources aren’t the only issue – our food then goes to landfills where it releases methane and other harmful greenhouse gases as it breaks down. Our food waste in the USA is the single largest contributor to municipal waste. All of these processes contribute to climate change and threaten our environment. The World Wildlife Federation estimates that our food waste is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of 37 million cars! Farmers work hard to ensure we have enough food to eat, and by throwing away so much food, they must work harder to produce enough crop to fill the gap created by food waste – thus forcing more out of the land and its resources. Additionally, food waste accounts for 25 percent of freshwater usage in the US annually, and is a leading contributor to freshwater pollution.
It is vital to the survival of our planet that we consider the consequences of all of our actions, even ones as simple as tossing out a bruised pear.
Along with the harm to the environment, food waste also costs us money. From the retail side, stores lose money on the food they purchase that then is never sold to consumers. Consumers then lose money on the food they buy that then goes bad in their kitchen or gets scraped off our plates into the trash. The average American household loses $1,600 to food waste annually. Food waste doesn’t just hurt your wallet – but the economy as well. Food waste costs the US an average of $218 billion a year. This is a hefty price for a problem that is largely due to our own controllable actions! By reducing our food waste, we will be saving our country the cost and can ideally put that money towards better food programs for those who need them.
What You Can Do
As consumers, there is little we can do about fixing food loss – which occurs at the harvest and processing level. On the other hand, we can make an effort to reduce our own food waste! Listed below are ten tips you can try out to reduce your food waste!
Tips to Reduce Your Food Waste
1. Get creative with your food! No matter how hard we try, there is always going to be a time when we don’t get to eat our produce before it starts to go bad, but that doesn’t mean we have to toss it right away! Need a place to start? Check out this blog on the “Best Recipes for Overripe Fruits & Vegetables.”
2. Compost your food waste! Your food scraps don’t always have to end up in the trash – start an at home compost bin. This will help reduce your food waste, and you can then use the compost on your garden!
3. Buy food you actually like to eat. This may seem obvious, but every now and then we tell ourselves, “I should start eating this…” then when we actually buy it… it just sits around until it goes bad (yes, I am talking about kale.) While we always want to encourage you to try new foods, especially healthy ones – don’t force yourself to buy something you just know you won’t eat!
4. Understanding expiration dates. This one is tricky. Food labels are often misleading, and the inconsistency in labeling adds confusion to the purchasing process. Some foods have packaging dates, some have expiration dates, some have best buy dates. Most often, food is still safe to consume shortly after these dates – they are just guidelines for when it is best to eat the product by, this doesn’t automatically mean it becomes inedible after said date. A few seconds of google searching will help you determine if which specific food you’re eating is safe after the date. (Tip: always trust your senses, if it doesn’t smell or look right, it’s likely not safe to consume).
5. Making stocks and broths. Not interested in composting – trying using your leftover produce to make broths and stocks instead. Having a container on your counter-top makes it easy to collect the stems and ends of veggies, which you can later soak and cook to extract their flavors making a delicious broth for soups!
6. Go to a weekly farmer’s market. This might sound backwards – reduce your food waste by buying more food. Yep! Instead of trying to stock up on fruits and veggies at a big-name store every two weeks when you shop, try becoming a regular at your local farmer’s market. This way, you only buy what you can eat in the next seven days, and after a few visits you will know exactly how much you tend to eat, so that you won’t buy extra. Farmer’s markets rarely have produce packaged in large bunches, so you won’t be tempted to buy in bulk – which can lead to more waste.
7. Buy ugly produce! This can be a difficult norm to overcome. We see blemishes and malformations as a sign that something is wrong – and potentially harmful – with our food. We always want you to be cautious, but try to ease your judgments of food. More often than not, these “ugly” products have just as much flavor and nutrients as their “prettier” counterparts.
8. Donate. Restaurants and retailers can do their part by donating food that is still safe for consumption that consumers do not purchase. For example, food that was mislabeled cannot be sold, despite it still being edible and safe for consumption. Instead of throwing this food away, companies can donate it to hunger programs and help food insecurity people in their community.
9. Make smaller portions. If you’re like me, you have no idea how to make just one portion of pasta. It can be difficult to gauge how much food to cook, especially if you are new to it. Using measuring tools can help you monitor how much is going into your pot, and hopefully prevent us from over-pouring.
10. Eat your leftovers! This is the most difficult for me – I am picky about leftovers. In this day and age we can have food delivered to our door in under 30 minutes, and the idea of fresh hot take-out is more enticing than last-night dinner. Like the ugly produce tip, this takes some personal effort and a willingness to change.
This may seem like a daunting task, but by taking small steps to change your eating habits, we can help minimize our food waste! Then, we can eat with a clear mind while giving our planet a helping hand!
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