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What You Need to Know About the True Cost of Wasting Food

A mountain of food waste in a landfill. | Still from "Broken Bread"
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Food waste is a global epidemic. One-third of the food produced each year never gets eaten — that’s enough food to feed undernourished people worldwide twice over.

The price we pay for food waste is more than just lost food. Food is the number one contributor to U.S. landfills. It costs $218 billion annually to both produce and dispose of that food, using precious resources such as labor, fresh water, croplands, fertilizer, pest control transportation and energy.

Food waste also contributes to climate change. If food waste were a country, it would rank third after the United States and China in carbon dioxide production. It also emits the greenhouse gas methane as it rots in landfills.

It’s imperative to reverse food waste, but the challenge lies in knowledge and attitude. Here are a few things you should know about the issue:

"Broken Bread" episode explores food waste and the people looking to minimize it.

1. Ways to Lay Waste to Food Waste

Solving food waste can be addressed in many ways, but some methods are more efficient and impactful than others, which is illustrated in the EPA’s Food Waste Pyramid. For example, composting food scraps should be encouraged, but it sits lower on the pyramid because it does nothing to affect the overall “foodprint” — all the resources used in addition to the gases emitted to produce the food in the first place.

Therefore, food waste should be tackled in the following order of preference:

Source Reduction – Reduce the volume of food waste generated.
Feed People – Donate extra food to food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters.
Feed Animals – Divert food scraps to farmers who can use it as animal feed.
Industrial Uses – Provide waste oils and fats for rendering and to create renewable energy — Unfortunately, not enough infrastructure for these methods is available to make this a viable option for consumers yet. However, wastewater treatment facilities already use anaerobic digestion to break down sewage sludge, and there’s a movement to start adding food waste to this process.
Composting – Convert food scraps into nutrient-rich fertilizer.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes actions organizations can take to prevent and divert wasted food. | Public domain
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes actions organizations can take to prevent and divert wasted food. | U.S. EPA / Public domain

Combining these methods can be a powerful tool for individuals and communities. For example, Denver has teamed up with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to create a food waste action plan that includes multiple levels of the pyramid. Begun in 2018, the goal is to reduce the number of food insecure households by 55% and reduce volume of food waste by 57% by 2030.

2. Don’t Believe Everything You Read

The United States has the dubious honor of having the second-highest per capita food waste in the world, with a whopping 40% of the food supply ending up in the landfill. For an average American household of four people, that amounts to about $1,800 wasted a  year. One of the top ways that households can reduce food waste is to stop tossing out food that’s still edible because of the expiration date, which can be misleading.

There is no way to gauge for sure when food will spoil, and the FDA has no set regulations — except for baby formula — on how to determine expiration dates. To address this issue, the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association created two new standard labels that aim to reduce food waste. The “Best If Used By” label communicates quality, the peak time that the product can be eaten, even though it’s still edible after the date printed. “Use By” labels communicate that a product is highly perishable and/or has food safety concerns over time.

Of course, consumers should also understand the optimal ways to store food to prolong its viability and how to determine by appearance or smell if food is spoiled. While there are plenty of resources online, the NRDC’s Save the Food campaign has created a new skill for Amazon’s Alexa that can inform consumers of best storage practices and signs of spoilage.

3. One Person’s Trash Is Another Person’s Dinner

Many foods that don’t look good can still be consumed. In our country, 20 billion pounds of produce go unharvested or rots because they don’t meet strict standards of appearance that retailers prefer. Companies like Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce deliver these so-called “ugly” produce at a lower cost than the usual grocery store produce to consumers’ doorsteps. Bon Appétit has a similar program for food service operations, and Chef Bill Bracken uses this produce as part of his culinary training program supplying his food truck, Bracken’s Kitchen, which delivers nutritious meals to feed the hungry.

A meal prepared by Bracken's Kitchen from food diverted from landfills. | Still from "Broken Bread"
A meal prepared by Bracken's Kitchen from food diverted from landfills. | Still from "Broken Bread"

Furthermore, perfectly edible parts of food are often tossed into the trash, but learning to use these scraps in innovative ways — such as sautéing chopped-up stems of broccoli as a side dish or roasting squash seeds for a snack —  can help reduce waste in addition to stretching the dollar. The James Beard Foundation’s Waste Not cookbook and Save the Food have recipes to teach households how to use every part of the food they buy.

Even once foods are past their prime and have started to turn, they still might be edible, as long as they’re utilized in different ways. For example, most consumers know that overripe or browned bananas can be used to make banana breads, but blended they also make a good base for smoothies. In fact, blending, baking, or boiling are all ways to use foods past their prime. A few innovative brewers have even figured out ways to make boozy beverages from food waste.

4. Your Food Vote Matters

You’ve heard of Meatless Mondays by now, and it’s not just inspired by better heart health. Foodprints vary, and what the consumer decides to buy is a way to “vote” for how many resources are used or gases are emitted in food production. For example, if you take a shower lasting 104 minutes, that’s the equivalent of how much water is used to make one pound of chicken. One pound of tomatoes would only be equivalent to a 5-minute shower, while a pound of beef would be a really long and wasteful 370 minutes. Therefore, eating a diet of more fruits, vegetables and grains is far more sustainable than meats.

Similarly, studies have shown that even meal kits like Blue Apron have a smaller carbon footprint — even including the packaging — than the same amount of food that the consumer would purchase at the store. NPR reports that other meal kits — such as Green Chef, Sun Basket, One Potato, Purple Carrot, and Terra’s Kitchen — go one better and may donate to food-insecure families, provide job training to the unemployed, use recycled packaging, or offer organic options.

5. There’s an App for That

While the James Beard Foundation’s online course Creating a Full-Use Kitchen and the Hotel Kitchen toolkit are powerful tools to teach how cooking on a large scale doesn’t have to be wasteful, inevitably, more food is made in restaurants, hotels and schools than can be consumed. Similarly, grocery stores and manufacturers are often left with excess products that remain unsold.

This is where donating food, the second tier on the Food Recovery Hierarchy, is the most effective. While the EPA website lists several resources for donors to find food pantries and shelters, transporting the food is often still a problem. As with many tasks, there’s an app for that. Food Rescue U.S., Food Connect, and Food Cowboy are just a few apps that match potential food donors with groups who provide meals to food insecure families throughout the United States and often help facilitate the transfer of food. Since 2011, Food Rescue has delivered over 26 million meals.

Boxes of recovered food donated by restaurants and hotels to Chefs to End Hunger. | Still from "Broken Bread"
Boxes of recovered food donated by restaurants and hotels to Chefs to End Hunger. | Still from "Broken Bread"

Austin-based company GrubTubs found an innovative way to handle the rest of the food waste with a reverse “Table to Farm” approach. Leftover food is collected in air-tight tubs, insect grubs that love to eat that waste are added, and they in turn become nutrient-rich food that chickens, pigs and fish eat. Feeding animals, which is the top expense in agriculture, satisfies the third tier on the Food Waste Pyramid.

6. Little Ripples Make Big Waves

Caring about reducing food waste is in everybody’s best interest, but the current U.S. administration has made it clear that help would not be coming from the federal level. Thus, the onus is on everyone else that is part of the food supply chain.

"One of the more interesting movements in... the last 20 to 30 years has been the food movement. It’s really been led by individuals making different choices that has ultimately resulted in the radical shift and transformation of the agricultural, food, and restaurant industry.”

Fortunately, the NRDC has already seen significant progress from their first food waste report in 2012, to the new report in 2017, whether it’s with better food labeling or businesses making an effort to reduce waste. Members of the Pacific Coast Collaborative (PCC) — which includes governments from British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California — are committed to reducing their food waste by 50% by 2030. Similarly, the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) includes 184 cities worldwide, ranging from Abidjan to Zurich, that have pledged to promote sustainable urban food systems.

NRDC president Rhea Suh has found that individuals can have a far greater impact than they may believe.

“If [we] can get people to start thinking about their individual daily choices in a really different way, that actually is quite additive,” she said at the 2018 New York Food Tank Summit. “I think one of the more interesting movements in probably the last 20 to 30 years has been the food movement. It’s really been led by individuals making different choices that has ultimately resulted in the radical shift and transformation of the agricultural, food, and restaurant industry.”

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