How to waste less food

Americans waste more than 20 pounds of food per person each month. (Image: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency licensed under Creative Commons)

Americans throw out 40 per cent of their food, the equivalent of $165 billion in uneaten food per year, according to a study released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Given the near daily news headlines about soaring food prices caused by this summer’s drought, this news is as timely as it is shocking.

“As a country, we’re essentially tossing every other piece of food that crosses our path – that’s money and precious resources – down the drain,” says Dana Gunders of the NRDC’s food and agriculture program. “With the price of food continuing to grow, and drought jeopardizing farmers nationwide, now is the time to embrace all the tremendous untapped opportunities to get more out of our food system.” 

The council’s report is full of sobering statistics: The average American consumer wastes 10 times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia. All of that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills, where it makes up the single largest component of municipal solid waste in the U.S. and accounts for almost 25 per cent of the country’s methane emissions. Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough to feed more than 25 million Americans every year.

“Fortunately, there are ways to tackle the food waste problem, and everyone can play a role,” says Gunders. The first step is getting smart about how to shop. This means planning meals, making shopping lists, buying from bulk bins and avoiding impulse buys.

Understanding “use by” and “sell by” dates is also critical to reducing food waste. Gunders points out that, according to the USDA, the date printed on most foods is not a safety date but rather an indicator to help stores determine how long to display the product and help purchasers to know when the product is at its best. Infant formula is the only product that is required to have a “use by” date.

Composting uneaten food rather than throwing it in the trash is another important step. Government statistics show that of all the food that is lost in the phases from farm to fork, only 3 per cent gets composted.

“No matter how sustainably our food is farmed, if it’s not being eaten, it is not a good use of resources,” Gunders says.

More tips on reducing food waste (courtesy NRDC)

  • Shop Wisely—Plan meals, use shopping lists, buy from bulk bins, and avoid impulse buys. Don’t succumb to marketing tricks that lead you to buy more food than you need, particularly for perishable items. Though these may be less expensive per ounce, they can be more expensive overall if much of that food is discarded.
  • Buy Funny Fruit—Many fruits and vegetables are thrown out because their size, shape, or color are not “right”. Buying these perfectly good funny fruit, at the farmer’s market or elsewhere, utilizes food that might otherwise go to waste.
  • Learn When Food Goes Bad—“Sell-by” and “use-by” dates are not federally regulated and do not indicate safety, except on certain baby foods. Rather, they are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. Most foods can be safely consumed well after their use-by dates.
  • Mine Your Fridge—Websites such as http://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com can help you get creative with recipes to use up anything that might go bad soon.
  • Use Your Freezer—Frozen foods remain safe indefinitely. Freeze fresh produce and leftovers if you won’t have the chance to eat them before they go bad.
  • Request Smaller Portions—Restaurants will often provide half-portions upon request at reduced prices.
  • Eat Leftovers—Ask your restaurant to pack up your extras so you can eat them later. Freeze them if you don’t want to eat immediately. Only about half of Americans take leftovers home from restaurants.
  • Compost—Composting food scraps can reduce their climate impact while also recycling their nutrients. Food makes up almost 13 percent of the U.S. waste stream, but a much higher percent of landfill-caused methane.
  • Donate—Non-perishable and unspoiled perishable food can be donated to local food banks, soup kitchens, pantries, and shelters. Local and national programs frequently offer free pick-up and provide reusable containers to donors.
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