Food waste made headlines recently as farmers were forced to dump millions of pounds of fresh food intended for businesses and schools closed during the pandemic.
But even before then, our food system has been churning out enough to provide every man, woman, and child with 3,800 calories a day. Yet only 2,550 of those calories get eaten. With 70 percent of adults and 35 percent of children overweight or with obesity, we’d be better off eating even less. Even so, those 1,250 wasted calories lead to greenhouse gas emissions, thrown-away resources, and higher prices.
“We waste an incredible amount of food,” says Edward Spang, assistant professor of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis.
It’s not just the slimy lettuce, moldy leftovers, or green cheese in your fridge.
“It starts at the farm or a livestock facility, where food might spoil or be damaged by weather or pests,” says Spang. “Then a forklift could damage a pallet of food or the refrigeration on a truck could cut out and cause spoilage.”
But the lion’s share of waste happens after food leaves the farm.
“Businesses that serve or sell food are responsible for 40 percent of food waste in the United States,” says Jennifer Molidor of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has graded supermarket chains on how well they track and report food waste.
Stores may toss holiday foods that never sold or fruits and vegetables with less-than-perfect color, shape, or size.
“We need revised cosmetic standards across all stores,” says Molidor.
To create a look of abundance, stores may keep in-store delis and bakeries looking well-stocked right up until closing. Then some of that food gets dumped.
“Stores can also eliminate promotions like buy-one-get-one schemes for perishables,” says Molidor. Odds are, some will end up in your trash.
Restaurants are also to blame. What happens when Red Robin sells “Bottomless Steak Fries” or TGI Fridays sells “2 apps+2 entrées+2 desserts” for $20? It’s either excess waist…or excess waste.
While some food waste is inevitable, throwing away so much has consequences that you may not think about:
■ Higher prices. “Wasting food pushes up the price of food and means that it’s not accessible to people who could use it,” says Brian Roe, professor of agricultural, environmental, and development economics at Ohio State University.
■ Wasted water and land. “Growing food is resource intensive,” notes Spang. Wasted food uses 21 percent of U.S. agricultural water and enough cropland to cover New Mexico, says the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council.
■ Greenhouse gasses. Food waste creates as much greenhouse gas as 37 million passenger vehicles, estimates the NRDC. “About 75 percent of wasted food in the U.S. ends up in a landfill,” says Roe. When food scraps in landfills decompose, they create methane, a greenhouse gas that is roughly 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
What’s the answer? We can all do more. But some steps are out of our hands.
“The government’s lack of specific actions lets the biggest food-waste offenders, especially grocery stores, off the hook,” says Molidor.
But some progress is being made.
“In California, we have a law focused on reducing methane emissions,” says Spang. “One of its targets is to cut food and other organic material going to landfills by 75 percent by 2025.”
That has led some communities to charge “pay-as-you-throw” fees to curb waste that will end up in a landfill.
“The more garbage you throw out, the more you have to pay,” notes Roe.
Thanks, in part, to pay-as-you-throw fees, South Korea now recycles 95 percent of its food waste.
And in San Francisco, where every household and restaurant must use a composting bin, the city has diverted more than two million tons of compostables from landfills.
The feds could also do more. In November, when romaine lettuce was linked to an outbreak of foodborne illness, the FDA couldn’t trace the source, so enormous amounts of lettuce got tossed, no matter where it was grown.
“We have the tools needed to improve traceability,” says Spang. “They just haven’t been widely adopted.”
What can you do?
“The government needs to compel the whole industry to prevent food waste rather than pushing the problem onto consumers,” says Molidor of the Center for Biological Diversity.
But you can still do your bit.
“If there were a cash register on top of the garbage can that said, ‘Cha-ching! You threw away $32.73 of food over the past week,’ that might provide motivation to toss less,” says Ohio State’s Brian Roe.
Here’s what may help.
Click here for a printer-friendly version of all of the tips below.
- The freezer is ideal for storing nuts, bread, butter, meat, fish, poultry, and blocks of hard cheese.
- You can freeze milk. Just shake the thawed milk if the fat has separated.
- Freeze (cooled-down) chicken or vegetable stock in ice cube trays. Put the frozen cubes in an airtight container or a zip-top bag.
- Blanch vegetables before freezing to preserve their flavor.
- Peel ripe bananas before freezing. Toss frozen chunks in a smoothie, or immerse the plastic bag in water to thaw to use in cooking or baking.
- Freeze berries on a tray so they don’t stick together. Then transfer them to an airtight container or bag.
- Chop peaches, melon, mangoes, pineapple, and other fruit before freezing.
- Freeze lightly beaten eggs in an airtight container. Thaw in the fridge and use for scrambled eggs or cooking.
- Pack ice-cube trays half full with fresh herbs like oregano, thyme, and basil, then top with olive oil. Transfer the frozen cubes to an airtight container or bag.
- Before you put food in the freezer, label and date the containers.
- Most entrées have 1,000+ calories. Don’t eat more to waste less. Take home the excess.
- BYOB! (Bring your own to-go box for leftovers.)
- Split an entrée with a friend.
- Order a half entrée if you can.
- Pass up buffets and other all-you-can-eat offers.
- Three avocados for $5? You probably don’t have to buy them all to get the promotional price.
- To avoid overbuying, plan meals ahead.
- Look for misshapen produce at reduced prices.
- Buy frozen fruit for smoothies.
- Try items made from stems, like cauliflower rice and broccoli slaw.
The Healthy Cook’s Waste-Free Kitchen Tips
- Got greens like kale, spinach, or beet greens on the verge of going bad? Sauté or steam them. That will give them new life.
- Revive wilted greens by putting them in ice water for 5-10 minutes.
- Soft apples or pears? Place peeled, cored chunks in a pot with a bit of water, then heat and mash. Voilà! Apple (or pear) sauce.
- Use leftover herbs in salads or sandwiches, as a garnish in soups, or for making pesto.
- Stuck with small amounts of a variety of uncooked grains that have similar cooking times? Mix them together.
- Find a few recipes with flexible ingredient lists to clean out your fridge. Veggie stir-fry, anyone?
- Do a semi-annual or quarterly “eat up the pantry” to use up grains and canned goods.
- Before traveling, eat your perishables or give them to friends. Or take them along.
- Keep a container in the freezer for scraps of carrots, onions, celery, herbs, garlic, and poultry bones. Once it’s full, make stock. (Need a recipe? See nutritionaction.com/stock.)
- Create an “eat first” area in your fridge where you’re most likely to see leftovers.
- Disinfect your fridge regularly. Invisible mold spores can speed food spoilage.
- Store fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro in a glass of water (like cut flowers).
- Store mushrooms in a paper bag in the fridge (or in an open container if you like them drier).
- Onions can make potatoes sprout. Keep them apart.
- Bananas and apples can make other fruits ripen. Separate them.
- Store oils that you use often (like olive or peanut) in a cool, dark place.
- Keep oils that you use infrequently (like sesame or walnut) in the fridge.
- Store leftovers in clear containers so you can see what they are.
- Most “best by” dates refer to a food’s quality, not safety. If it smells and looks fine, no need to toss it.
- Go to savethefood.com/storage for more tips.
- Interested in backyard or indoor composting? Go to epa.gov/recycle/composting-home.
- Go to litterless.com/wheretocompost to see if your community has a composting program. (Private services charge a modest fee.)
- Urge your condo or apartment building to start composting.
- You can compost fruit and veggie scraps, pasta, bread, cereal, egg shells, coffee grounds, paper plates, and more.
- If you don’t take compostables out regularly, keep them in the freezer so they don’t smell.
Photos: panaramka/stock.adobe.com (top), Kaamilah Mitchell/CSPI.
Illustrations: Jorge Bach/CSPI.
Find this article interesting and useful?
Nutrition Action Healthletter subscribers regularly get sound, timely information about staying healthy with diet and exercise, delicious recipes, and the inside scoop on healthy and unhealthy foods in supermarkets and restaurants. If you don’t already subscribe to the world’s most popular nutrition newsletter, click here to join hundreds of thousands of fellow health-conscious consumers.
Have a comment, question, or idea?
Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. While we can’t respond to every email, we’ll be sure to read your message.