Americans waste a staggering amount of food every year.
On farms, at restaurants and in households, about 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten annually, according to a 2012 report by the National Resource Defense Council, a New York-based environmental nonprofit.
That’s about 20 pounds of food per person, per month. At a time when one in six Americans face food insecurity, reducing food losses by just 15 percent could feed 25 million additional people, the report adds.
In Georgia, the number of food-insecure people — those who don’t know where their next meal may come from — is even higher than the national average, at 18.7 percent. Peach State children are even more likely to go hungry, with one in four living in food-insecure households, according to the Georgia Food Bank Association.
So where are the six billion pounds of America’s unharvested and unsold produce going? Kent Wolfe, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development said stiff competition between farmers may be part of the problem.
“If we look at the total value of agriculture in Georgia, it’s $13.8 billion yearly,” Wolfe said. “It employs about 410,000 folks, and it’s the largest industry in the state, followed by tourism.”
Farmers make up about 6 percent of Georgia’s workforce, and with all those people trying to make a living, overproduction can cause prices to plummet, Wolfe said.
“At some of the perishable-produce farms, sometimes they (farmers) may just leave the product in the field, because prices are below what it costs them to farm it,” Wolfe said. “It’s overproduction. Produce kind of moves up from Florida over the course of the season, and if the prices drop to a certain point, it’s not worth harvesting.”
That’s why farmers sometimes plow their crops over, returning the nutrients to the soil for next year’s crop. But it’s not just overproduction. Produce distributors want top-notch fruits and vegetables for supermarket shelves, leading many farmers to cull their crops and discard misshapen peaches or wimpy cucumbers.
In his 2010 book, “American Wasteland,” author John Bloom interviewed a farmer at a large tomato packing house who claimed in mid-season, he could fill a 22,000 pound dump truck with discarded tomatoes every 40 minutes.
Some organizations, like Savannah- based America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia, work with farmers to recapture rejected produce and get it to the kitchens of food-insecure Georgians. Mary Jane Crouch, the group’s executive director, said the donations make a big difference.
“We actually have a truck that goes out every day to grocery stores, farmers and places like that,” Crouch said. “They pick up bread, eggs, things that are close to date, and bring it back to our warehouse. Local organizations can then come and pick the food up and give it those in need.”
Americans’ appetites for aesthetically pleasing produce is far from the only factor adding to food waste. About 86 billion pounds of food were lost in 2008 at the household and food-service level, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA.
Growing portion sizes at restaurants during the past 30 years have led to Americans’ eyes becoming increasingly larger than their stomachs. Chocolate chip cookies are four times larger today than they were in 1982, and the calorie count of a pizza slice has increased by 70 percent, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Bloom, in his book, estimates 17 percent of restaurant meals go uneaten, and 55 percent of diners skip the take-home box.
The frittering away of food isn’t just happening at restaurants, either. American families toss out about 25 percent of their groceries every year, costing each household about $1,600, according to the USDA. Most of what gets thrown out is fruits and vegetables, followed by dairy.
While comprehensive research about why Americans throw away so much food is lacking, evidence suggests a variety of reasons, the National Resource Defense Council report notes.
The cheap, plentiful availability of food encourages behaviors that do not place a premium on using what’s been bought. The bulk buying of food — think of “buy one, get one” sales — entices buyers to take home more food than they need. And that grocery list you forgot to make last week? That’s costing you big bucks, too. Lack of meal planning and inaccurate estimates of how much food to buy is a spoilage culprit.
Perhaps the most notorious waster of household foods, though, is the “best by” and “sell by” dates. Believe it or not, there are no federal requirements for these dates, except for baby formula. The dates are not standardized, and it is — in most cases — completely up to manufacturers and producers to decide what date to slap on their products.
Georgia, for example, has a few more date-label requirements than the federal government. In addition to baby formula, eggs, dairy, shellfish and prepackaged sandwiches must have expiration dates — but everything else is fair game.
In most cases, the “best by” dates are suggestions for when the product will reach peak freshness. However, many consumers interpret these dates as expirations and discard the food thinking it’s unsafe.
A 2011 study in the United Kingdom found that about 20 percent of household food waste was attributed to people being confused about date labels.
To compound the problem of food waste, much of it ends up in municipal landfills. That’s not just taking up space, but once it’s in the landfill, the organic material can’t decompose like it normally would. Without oxygen, the biowaste breaks down and turns into methane, a leading greenhouse gas that’s 25 more times potent than carbon dioxide. It’s so powerful, in fact, that in a municipal landfill in LaGrange, in west Georgia, the city government harvests the methane and sells it to local manufacturers as fuel for industrial generators.
Feeling overwhelmed yet? Well, don’t. There are plates of solutions to America’s food waste problem.
Businesses and restaurants can take regular audits of their food use to reduce waste, and cooperation between industry leaders can make headway toward increasing efficiency.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, Food Marketing Institute and National Restaurant Association, all trade groups, have formed the Food Waste Opportunities and Challenges Initiative. The effort focuses on donating food and cutting waste that ends up in landfills.
At home, consumers can shop smarter by planning meals in advance and avoiding bulk impulse buys. Freezing unused food and understanding date labeling can help households cut waste, too.
Donating unused items to food banks can have a double impact, as well. By giving unsold food to community food pantries, businesses and individuals can help those in need, as well as keep landfills from expanding. It’s a common misconception that businesses or people can be sued if food turns out to make someone sick, too.
The Bill Emerson Food Donation Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, protects donors from civil and criminal liability if someone later gets sick, as long as the food was donated in good faith. Georgia also has a law protecting donors.
Fixing America’s food waste problem won’t happen overnight. Industries, consumers and policy makers will have to work together educate the public, change supply-chain operations and create market-based incentives to cull food waste.
“The statistics are actually quite alarming,” Crouch, with America’s Second Harvest, said. “Last year, we provided 13 million pounds of food to people in Coastal Georgia. Statistically, 40 percent of food is wasted, so if we can capture even a small amount of can make a difference in our landfills, the economy in our communities and climate change.”