Americans Waste Enough Food to Fill a 90,000-seat Football Stadium Every Day -- What Can We Do About It?
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Every day, America wastes enough food to fill the Rose Bowl. Yes, that Rose Bowl--the 90,000-seat football stadium in Pasadena, California. Of course, that's if we had an inclination to truck the nation's excess food to California for a memorable but messy publicity stunt.
As a nation, we grow and raise more than 590 billion pounds of food each year. And depending on whom you ask, we squander between a quarter and a half of all the food produced in the United States. Even using the more conservative figure would mean that 160 billion pounds of food are squandered annually--more than enough, that is, to fill the Rose Bowl to the brim. With the high-end estimate, the Rose Bowl would almost be filled twice over.
If those numbers don't hit home, consider that the average American creates almost 5 pounds of trash per day. Since, on average, 12 percent of what we throw away is or once was edible, we can estimate that each one of us discards half a pound of food per day. That adds up to an annual total of 197 pounds of food per person. Ominously, Americans' per capita food waste has increased by 50 percent since 1974.
How we reached the point where most people waste more than their body weight--or at least the average American body-weight--each year in food is a complicated tale. In short, Americans' gradual shift from a rural, farming life to an urban, nonagricultural one removed us from the sources of our food. Our once iron-clad guarantee of inheriting generations of food wisdom became less so, as busier lives forced many of us to leave the kitchen or spend less time there. Convenience began to trump homemade, and eating out drew level with dining in. We have higher standards for our meals, but diminished knowledge about how to maximize our use of food. Many of us don't even trust our noses to judge when an item has gone bad. Yet, our awareness of pathogens has multiplied, and we apply safety rules to food with the same zealous caution that we apply to allergies, kids walking to school, and most everything in modern life.
Certainly, some food loss is unavoidable. For example, there are many potential pitfalls, such as harsh weather, disease, and insects invading farmers' fields, that are outside of our control. And then there's storage loss, spoilage, and mechanical malfunctions. I classify all of the above factors as loss, not waste (also omitted when I use the term "waste" are inedible discards like peels, scraps, pits, and bones). Broadly speaking, I consider food "wasted" when an edible item goes unconsumed as a result of human action or inaction. There is culpability in waste. Whether it's from an individual's choice, a business mistake, or a government policy, most food waste stems from decisions made somewhere from farm to fork. A grower doesn't harvest a field in response to a crop's lowered price. Grocers throw away imperfect produce to satisfy their (and, as consumers, our) obsession with freshness. We allow groceries to rot in our refrigerators while we eat out, and when at restaurants we order 1,500-calorie entrées only to leave them half eaten.
We're not going to revert to an agrarian society anytime soon, but that doesn't mean we can't have a greater appreciation of our food. While completely eliminating food waste may be impossible, reducing it isn't. Improvements are needed at all steps of the food chain, but most importantly at the part that involves us. Buying wisely, and maximizing our food use once it's in our possession, would go a long way toward minimizing that daily Rose Bowl-sized pile of waste.
My fascination with wasted food started in the sweltering lair of one of America's oldest food-recovery groups, D.C. Central Kitchen, in 2005. I'd been cruising through most of my twenties as an increasingly food-focused journalist, but I hadn't quite found my niche. That summer day in our nation's capital, my task was to man an industrial-sized vat of pasta. This was not a plum assignment in a building without air conditioning. Yet the job's mindlessness granted me time to look around while I stirred the spaghetti with an oar. I noticed a variety of foods that somebody hadn't wanted. And it was all good stuff, too. We're talking about racks of lamb, ribs, and nice vegetables. Such abundance, all waiting for redistribution to the hungry.
What was the story? Where did these foods come from? Why were they cast away? And what happens in cities that lack such food-recovery organizations?
My curiosity about these questions led me to investigate the extent of food waste in America. I declined a traditional journalism job after graduation in order to focus on food waste--even if it made future meals with friends and family a touch uncomfortable. I launched a blog (WastedFood.com) in late 2006. Along the way, I began to be interviewed and was invited to give talks on the subject. It's an odd thing to call oneself a food-waste expert, but life's funny like that.
But there's more to it. I've always had a sense that food was not something to be wasted. Ours was not a house where one had to clean one's plate, but my brother and I certainly had to try everything. It was a place where all shapes and sizes of leftovers were saved, whether we were eating in or out. Chinese food containers accompanied us home from every meal at Chef Chang's or Lotus Flower. And having a leftover smorgasbord night was not uncommon.
Outside the kitchen door of my childhood home, a Victorian built in the 1890s, sits a hole with a cover operated by a foot pedal. The mauve-colored lid is akin to a foot-operated trash can. There's good reason for the similarity--it was where our predecessors dumped their food scraps for a local pig farmer to collect. As a kid, I had no idea what this contraption was for; it was just a nuisance during driveway basketball games. Looking back, though, I suppose the topic of food waste has been with me all along.
Less symbolic and more important, I grew up watching my Grandma Bloom eat. A teenager during the Depression, she'd get every morsel of meat from chicken drumsticks and, on New Year's Eve, lobster legs. On the other side of the family, Grandma Abby has another method for avoiding waste: attempting to serve all that she's prepared with her loving brand of "persistent hospitality." Anyone familiar with the Jewish Grandmother Code of Conduct will understand that this means she relentlessly pushes food on guests. And in his day, if there was anything left on your plate, Grandpa Jack made it disappear.
Growing up the son of second-generation Americans in Yankee Massachusetts, I was destined for thrift. The majority of immigrants to this country brought and continue to bring a culture of thrift that's less a choice than a necessity. That includes the Anglo Saxon settlers who arrived in the seventeenth century. Their habits, the vestiges of which still pervade the Northeast as "Yankee culture," were nothing if not practical and thrifty. If you've ever seen a New Englander make pot-scrubbing powder from eggshells, or breadcrumbs from stale bread, you know that many of us delight in avoiding waste.
I'm also a bit of a cheapskate (although, to be fair, I prefer the term "pragmatic")--and I love both preparing and eating food. I abhor the thought of food going to waste, both because it's anathema to my cheap, er, practical, soul and because it's a horrible fate for edibles that could otherwise help feed those who go without or just make something delicious. And after learning more about the resources that go into growing crops and raising livestock and the environmental impact of landfilling food, seeing those goods squandered frustrates me even more.
Despite all of my attention to the topic, I still waste food. Some items in our house go bad before my wife and I can use them (I'm looking right at you, cilantro bunch). Other foods get buried and forsaken in the fridge. And occasionally--with a dash of guilt--I toss something that just doesn't taste good. Okay, fine--it's more like a dollop than a dash.
Two years ago, when I was working at an anaerobic digestion company in Raleigh, North Carolina, an odd sight stopped me in my tracks as I walked across the parking lot one morning: an abandoned orange. In an otherwise immaculate strip of asphalt--because it was one of those places that contracted landscapers to leaf-blow the parking lot weekly--it was not hard to spot. I was transfixed. I returned to my car and got my camera to take pictures of this forsaken fruit. I couldn't imagine who would throw out what appeared to be a perfectly good orange. The exterior was a little dirty, but that's why oranges have skin. And I guessed that the spot of grime came courtesy of the asphalt. So what did I do? What would anyone who was blogging about food waste do? I ate it. And it was fine.
In addition to wondering who would discard a perfectly good orange, I couldn't imagine who would drop it onto the ground. Because, with the exception of cigarette butts, we just don't see people leave their trash behind as much these days as we did, say, twenty years ago. Collectively, we decided it was an unpleasant behavior and directly and indirectly set about to curtail it. Putting a name on the behavior--"littering"--helped. The Pennsylvania Resources Council created the "litterbug" idea in the early 1950s and allowed others to use it, and publicity campaigns followed.8 States made it worth our while to turn in bottles and cans, and eventually counties and municipalities made it much, much easier to recycle through curbside collection.
Today, seeing someone drop a can on the ground or even in the regular trash is rare, but few passersby would bat an eyelash if you threw away half of a banana. A common misconception is that food automatically returns to the soil. But although it does not seem as harmful as inorganic trash, food waste, in truth, is more damaging than most other litter. Organic materials (such as foods) are the ones that release greenhouse gases into the environment as they decompose.
Food waste isn't considered problematic because, for the most part, it isn't considered at all. It's easy to ignore because it's both common and customary. William Rathje, director of the erstwhile Garbage Project, a University of Arizona study that examined America's trash habits for more than thirty years, told me that food waste and its consequences go largely unnoticed. Why? Because it doesn't pile up like old newspapers; it just goes away, either down the disposal or into the trash. Yet, once you start looking for it, you can't miss the abandoned appetizers and squandered sandwiches.
Whenever the topic of food waste comes up in a conversation I'm having--after the awkwardness passes, if there's eating involved--most everyone has an intense reaction. Regardless of their take on the subject, each person has a strategy, an anecdote, or a question. I have yet to meet somebody who is pro-food waste, but many aren't convinced that it's important. And a good number of people, regardless of how they respond, don't behave as if it matters much.
But food waste matters. A lot. Wasting food has harmful environmental, economic, and ethical consequences. That's why we can't afford to ignore it anymore. You may see that orange and think that it's just one piece of fruit. True. But what if all 130 million households in America tossed out that amount or more of food each day?10 We'd need a pretty big bowl to contain all that squandered food. Something about the size of the Rose Bowl.
In the coming pages, I'll take you to abandoned harvests, pristine supermarket produce sections, and restaurants where abundance is always on the menu. We'll end up close to home, well, actually, in your home. Because, as we'll see, wasted food occurs there, and all around us. Still, we remain blissfully unaware of it.
You may be amazed by how freely and easily we dispose of food, from farm to fork. But it can be equally amazing how freely and easily we can diminish our vast squandering. To achieve that feat, though, we need to fully understand and acknowledge the scope of the problem.