What's The Big Deal With Food Waste?

Food waste is a big deal because it's unnecessary. We don't have to waste the amount of food that we do.

Yet do we ever waste it:

  • An estimated 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted globally each year (when only 6 billion tons of food is produced)
  • Americans waste 40% of food produced
  • The average American family of four wastes $2,275 on trashed food each year
  • The average single consumer wastes 25 - 40% of their $223 / month grocery bill
  • Food waste is the third highest contributor of greenhouse gases with 3.3 billion tons expelled per year
  • The production of food in the US accounts for 10% of the total energy budget and 80% of all freshwater consumed

The cost of food waste is, quite simply, enormous. And it's costing us socially, environmentally, and economically.

Where Does Food Waste Come From?

Food waste occurs at every step of the supply chain. From farmers to distributers; grocery stores to restaurants and consumers, each party involved bears some responsibility.

Farming

Food waste in farming is divided into two categories:

  1. Food that is never harvested
  2. Food that is lost between the harvest and the sale

Much of the food wasted on farms is unavoidable. Weather and insects, to name just two, are unpredictable and can destroy crops ready for harvesting at any time.

Avoidable food waste, however, can be estimated at approximately 7% of the total produce grown in the United States. Farmers often grow more than they need to hedge against weather and insects. Food scares like salmonella can result in entire crops being discarded. And aesthetic concerns - only picking the best looking food, even if the rest is perfectly good for consumption - results in a high amount of unnecessary waste.

Processing and Distribution

"Trimming" food (cutting off aesthetically ugly, yet edible, pieces of produce) in the processing stage accounts for a loss of 16 - 39% (studies have a high degree of variability) of total raw materials. There is some contention that food processing plants can be more effective than consumers at the trimming process, however the loss of raw materials is still significant.

Once the remaining produce is through the trimming process and on its way to grocery stores, the shipment still has a chance of being lost. Depending on the terms of agreement between grocery stores and distributors, grocery stores can refuse shipments already being transported; leading distributors to scramble to fill the order elsewhere.

Refused orders often cannot be filled elsewhere, leading to the entire shipment ending up in the landfill.

Grocery Stores

Though grocery stores only waste approximately 10% of the food they purchase (up to 40% for some perishable products), because of their high influence with farmers and distributors they are ultimately responsible for much of the food waste that occurs upstream in the supply chain.

Grocery store retailers contribute to the food waste problem by:

  • overstocking their shelves
  • expecting aesthetic perfection
  • expecting fresh produce to be available until closing time
  • using unregulated, aggressive 'sell-by' dates
  • tossing foods that don't sell well (but are edible), and
  • often being understaffed (less staff to prepare food).

Interestingly enough, the measure of success of a grocery store has a positive correlation with the amount of food it wastes. A former President of Trader Joe's said, "the reality as a regional grocery manager is, if you see a store that has a really low waste in its perishables, you are worried. If a store has low waste numbers it can be a sign that they aren't fully in stock and that the consumer experience is suffering."

As consumers we demand fully stocked stores and only the most aesthetically pleasing food; therefore there's an unfortunate catch-22 between running a grocery store efficiently and running it profitably.

Food Service (Restaurants, Cafeterias)

Approximately 4 - 10% of the food purchased by food service operators becomes waste. This statistic takes into account food that is purchased yet thrown out before being served.

Similar to grocery stores, restaurants with large menus require more inventory on hand to be able to serve menu items at all times. This inevitably leads to a higher rate of food spoilage when compared to restaurants with smaller menus.

For food that does make it to the table, 17% ends up in the garbage. This is due to a couple of factors, those being the increased size of portions (the average caesar salad doubled in calories between 1982 - 2002), and the percentage of consumers that don't take their leftovers home.

End Consumers (You)

Living in a wealthy country with cheap food inevitably lends itself to higher waste numbers compared to poor countries. But the statistics are compelling - the average American wastes 10x more food than the average person in Southeast Asia.

Consumer food waste happens for many different reasons, both deliberate and as a by-product of factors out of our control. Here's the most common reasons consumers waste food:

1.  People are unaware of the problem

When is food is abundant and cheap, people simply have other concerns. The true cost of food waste (economic, societal, and environmental) isn't front of mind.

2.  Label confusion

Label dates indicating safety are generally not regulated by government. Without a standardized system for labelling, consumers tend to throw out perishables before they go bad.

3.  Impulse purchases

Impulse purchases make up 20% of total grocery store purchases and tend to be thrown out quicker. And watch out for in-store promotions - they tend to increase the amount of impulse purchases the average consumer buys.

4.  Bulk purchases

Similar to above, consumers tend to have a difficult time estimating how much food they require. As a result they tend to end up throwing out a large percentage of bulk purchases.

5.  Lack of meal planning

Without writing out a grocery list or weekly meal plan, consumers buy more than they need or make impromptu visits to restaurants; resulting in a higher amount of food waste.

6.  Over preparation

Dinner plates have increased 3 inches in size (or are 36% bigger) than they were in 1960. This leads to over preparation and more food waste. Smaller plates may do the trick here!

Three Simple Steps You Can Take To Eliminate Food Waste

Consumers indirectly have control over farmers, processors, distributors, grocery stores and restaurants by deliberately choosing how they spend their money. Though the problem of food waste may appear unsolvable, deciding to reduce (or even eliminate) individual food waste is a decision that does have a system-wide impact.

Here's three simple steps you can take to effectively cut food waste out of your life.

1.  Write (and follow) a weekly meal plan

Meal planning is the process of planning what to cook and what to buy before going to the grocery store. Having a plan enables you to go grocery shopping only once per week, thereby reducing or eliminating impulse or unnecessary bulk purchases.

Take an hour on the weekend to find simple recipes to make for the coming week. Then put together a list of ingredients and head to the grocery store. Not only will the stress of deciding "what's for dinner" be gone, but food waste will automatically be reduced.

2.  Purchase "imperfect" produce

Part of the reason grocery stores, distributers, and farmers throw out so much produce is because we, as consumers, demand perfection.

Most produce in the grocery store is perfectly good for consumption - after all, it's already been through 2 - 3 trimming / sorting stages. Try choosing less than aesthetically perfect produce and see how it tastes. I expect there will hardly be any difference, if at all.

3.  Pack up restaurant leftovers

Nobody can eat at home all the time; so when at a restaurant, make sure to take home any leftovers. Servers will be happy to pack up the food and it'll be perfectly fine the following day.

You Have The Power. Choose To Reduce Food Waste.

Food waste is an unfortunate reality of a wealthy society. It's absolutely a major issue, but the power to solve it is ultimately in the hands of us and our choices.

Simple meal planning can all but eliminate food waste at the individual and family level. And meal planning does more than reduce food waste, it encourages home cooking as a healthier way of living.

This coming weekend try to put together a meal plan for the following week. It just takes some research and a list to get started. Or, sign up below to get two free meal plans that we've put together. It's ready to go and exceedingly simple; after all, reducing food waste and living healthier are values we can all share.