Americans should be hungry for change.
We, do, after all, waste a lot of food. Every day, our country’s discarded food could fill the Rose Bowl. Conservative estimates suggest that in the United States, at least 25 per cent, and more likely almost 50 per cent, of all food is wasted. We are not the worst offenders worldwide, though; that distinction goes to Britain and Japan. Americans do, however, exceed the global average of wasted food by about 10 per cent.
By the numbers, that would be 240 pounds of food per person per year lost. Compare that to our neighbors in Africa, who waste approximately 11 pounds per year. And we are getting worse over time, since we waste 50 per cent more food than we did in 1974.
It is not only food that is squandered. Natural resources, including oil and water, are also exhausted in the process. Food that is not eaten still gobbled up at least two per cent of all of U.S. energy consumption, expending 300 million barrels of oil and almost a quarter of the freshwater used in this country. In terms of oil, this is estimated to be about 70 times the total amount of oil lost from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines food waste as “uneaten food and food preparation wastes from residences and commercial establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants, and produce stands, institutional cafeterias and kitchens, and industrial sources like employee lunchrooms.” This definition doesn’t even include food left in the field or the transit loss during the average 1,500 miles that produce travels to its final destination.
Our produce, along with our reputation, is bruised and battered. Almost 40 billion pounds of fruit and vegetables, valued at $42 billion, are lost. The greatest amount of loss occurs in apples, grapes, peaches, strawberries, tomatoes and potatoes.
Waste not, want not. It is a troubling fact that there are 49 million “food insecure” households in this country, yet 15 per cent of our wasted food is untouched and unopened. If only 5 per cent of U.S. food scraps could be recovered, it could provide one day’s food for 4 million people. Currently less than 3 per cent of discarded food is recovered or recycled.
There is another blemish that results from all of this loss. Our landfills are filled with food! Almost 14 per cent of municipal solid waste is discarded food. These former provisions decompose and produce methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that the EPA claims is 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide because it traps 23 times as much heat as the same amount of carbon dioxide.
The costs are enormous to families, as well as to society. A family of four spends $175 per week on food that they end up throwing away, costing them over $2,200 per year!
Jonathan Bloom, author of Wasteland; How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and what we can do about it), who is an authority on food waste and a master of waste reduction, offers this advice: “The common attitude is ‘When in doubt, throw it out’ But I try to give the food the benefit of the doubt.” In his writings, he suggests methods to reduce our wasteful food folly.
Columnist Calvin Trillin was likely trying to amuse in this comment about his mother’s meals, but there was more than a kernel of sense in her eating habits: “The most remarkable thing about my mother,” he said, “is that for 30 years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.