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How Americans Waste Food, And How We Can Stop

Here's the thing about trying to tackle the food waste problem: It's super overwhelming. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture starts throwing out stats like "141 trillion calories a year" and "1,249 calories per person per day" of food go in the trash, it seems like a problem too big for an individual to address.

Now, there's some truth to that. Unless you're improving agricultural methods in Latin America, or figuring out better ways to keep food from spoiling in Africa, there's only so much an ordinary person can do to drastically alter the problem. But it's also important to keep in mind that those logistical and supply chain issues are not what Americans are dealing with when it comes to trashing food.

Instead, we have a lifestyle problem.

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A few weeks ago, this graphic popped up on the Twitter feed of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.:

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There are a few interesting takeaways here. First, North America -- grouped together with Oceania, which includes Australia, New Zealand, and smaller Pacific islands -- is high on the list of total food waste. That 52% of waste is neck and neck with Latin America, parts of Africa, and South and Southeast Asia for the title of World's Worst Food Waster. (As a matter of fact, Europe and industrialized Asia are the only two regions below 50%, which is relatively "good.") But the most important aspect of the chart is not how much food we're wasting, but how we're wasting it.

See the giant red section in the North American bar? That's waste from our consumption habits, which is a huge portion of our overall food waste. Compare that with other red bars from around the world, and it's by far the greatest example of consumer waste. (If our red bar was closer to Sub-Saharan Africa levels, we wouldn't be the world's worst offenders.) But if we want to try to lower food waste, we can focus on how we consume as individuals.

There's the usual standard tips for avoiding food waste. Making sure you only order what you'll eat, actually using those leftovers. (While you're at it, here's a great list of ways to use them.) And if you want to get your hands grittier, take part in some dumpster diving. But even those will only do so much.

See, no matter how many times you re-purpose food scraps or follow a food rotation system in your fridge, that won't make a significant dent on that red bar. Because a vast majority of our food waste comes from restaurant and supermarkets.

Think about how they are both wasteful industries. Keeping all of that perishable food in stock so that the consumer has whatever they want leads to a ton of it going into the trash. A truly conservative grocery store would have tons of space on their shelves, while a restaurant that's trying to avoid food waste would cross off menu items. Seeing as that rarely happens is indicative of just how much waste we're talking about. While Governor Brown's recent signing of AB 1826, which requires generators of food waste to compost or transfer the waste into energy, is a move in the right direction, that doesn't keep food from being thrown out. It just makes sure it gets into the right can. Instead, consumers need to send messages to the places they shop.

On the grocery store side of things, only buy from small markets who don't mind running out of certain foods, or shop at farmers' markets that are transparent about where their excess food goes. For restaurants, speak to a manager or give them a call (give them an alias, if it makes it easier!) and ask what they do with their food disposables. If the answer is "It goes in the trash," suggest they donate it to a service like Food Cowboy, which delivers surplus produce to food banks. If they don't, take that business of yours elsewhere.

Barring those overt actions (if you're not the most confrontational type), then make an effort to change your own buying habits. A big reason grocery stores and restaurants are overstocked with food is because that's what we, the consumers, want. At grocery stores, we only pick the very best looking fruits and veggies, casting anything bruised or blemished aside. At restaurants, we throw a fit if they won't have exactly what we want. Allowing a few dented apples into your shopping cart is a small, but important, step towards changing our food wasting culture.

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