28 April 2012
Reducing Food Waste in America
Food waste is a huge problem in America. According to Jonathan Bloom, a freelance journalist and food waste expert, “Every day, America wastes enough food to fill the Rose Bowl – the 90,000-seat football stadium in Pasadena, California,” (American Wasteland xi). Just think about it – that is enough food to feed about 49 million people (Sleeth 176) and it was thrown in the trash, even though most of it was still perfectly edible and safe to eat. We also are the worst culprits of this habit – while the rest of the world wastes about thirty-three percent of their food, America wastes more than forty percent (Huff). Food waste is a big problem and has consequences just like any other problem.
Wasting food has many consequences, both economic and environmental. When you waste food, you waste the money you used to buy it. The average family of four loses $2,200 – $2,200 that could have been spent on a vacation or a new TV – through food waste each year (Bloom, American Wasteland 24). Food piles up in landfills and causes environmental problems, including emitting large amounts of methane. In 2010, food waste accounted for almost fourteen percent of the total municipal solid waste stream, making it the second largest component (EPA, “Basic”). These large amounts of food in landfills quickly rot and emit significant amounts of methane – a potent greenhouse gas with twenty-one times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide (EPA, “Basic”). These methane emissions make landfills the second leading source of human-related methane emissions in the United States (Bloom, American Wasteland 16). However, these are not the only consequences of wasting food.
When food is wasted, the energy and resources put into making or growing it are wasted as well. Food represents seventeen percent of total American energy use (Bloom, American Wasteland 19). In addition, about four-hundred gallons of oil, or thirty-three tanks of gas are used to feed one person for a year (Bloom, American Wasteland 20). Not only is the energy wasted, but the land used to grow the food is wasted as well. Bloom says, “Trimming waste would slow demand for more farmland, which would in turn reduce soil depletion and prevent erosion” (American Wasteland 22). So, if food waste squanders our resources and wastes our money, why is food being wasted in such huge quantities?
The answer to that question is complicated, but there are a few main causes of food waste – overproduction, long travel distances, market problems, and people’s disconnect from their food. According to Bloom, Americans grow about twice as much food as we need, over 590 billion pounds of food each year (American Wasteland xi, 19). This means products sit on store shelves or in fields until they spoil and are thrown away because there is too much of the product. If prices drop, some growers have to plow under their crops. Losses due to markets cause eighteen to twenty percent waste (O’Hanlon). Another problem is the long journey products, especially produce, have to travel. The average U.S. supermarket produce item travels 1,500 miles before it arrives at its destination (Bloom, American Wasteland 4). There is a high chance of the produce being damaged on the way and since store owners will not take damaged produce, this forces the truck drivers to dump their load. Sometimes they can dump it at a food bank or soup kitchen, but most of the time the damaged produce is just thrown away.
The issues above are mostly the fault of the producers and growers, but that does not mean consumers do not play a large part in also wasting food. “’I think that without a doubt, when people say that they don’t waste food, they believe it. There’s a huge disconnect,’ says William Rathje, a Stanford archaeologist who ran the University of Arizona Garbage Project for years. ‘People don’t pay attention to their food waste because it goes straight into the garbage or disposal. It’s not like newspapers that stack up in the garage,’” (Bloom, “The Food Not Eaten”). The major reason food is wasted by consumers is because the majority of Americans live in the city and many have no idea where their food comes from. Consumers need to be aware of where their food originates and the negative impact it creates when they waste that food.
The responsibility for fixing America’s food waste problem rests on many shoulders, but the ones who can make the biggest difference is the consumers. Consumers not only can reduce their own food waste, but also pressure companies to reduce their food waste as well. To reduce household food waste, the EPA recommends the strategy of “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle”.
First, reduce the amount of food coming into your house. Figure out what meals you are going to eat that week and then stick to that menu. Bloom says, “The food items we often waste stem from impulse purchases, recipes we intend to but never make, and our failed best intentions” (“The Food Not Eaten”). Planning a menu will help you not make impulse purchases that you will end up tossing out later. When you go shopping, buy in quantities that you realistically need and will use. Think “what do I have to eat” instead of “what do I want to eat” (EPA, “Household”).
Second, reuse the food you have. This does not mean anything gross, it just means eat your leftovers. Leftovers make great lunches the next day or you could even make a completely new meal. Many great recipes online give ideas on how to reuse your leftovers. If you are not going to eat the leftovers right away, freeze them. “You’d be surprised by just how many foods can withstand a spell in the freezer, from apples to zucchini. (Milk, bread, herbs, and eggs are other surprisingly freezer-friendly edibles.) Freezing food can keep those buy-one-get-one deals from going awry. And freezers are a godsend for anyone who enjoys smoothies and soups,” (Bloom, “A Food Waste Primer”). If you have surplus fruits and vegetables, try canning them. There are oodles of ways to can fruits and vegetables, such as jam or spaghetti sauce. A word of caution: If this is your first time trying canning, make sure you find a good instruction book before you begin such as Ball’s Blue Book of Preserving. Canning is an easy way to save your extra fruits and vegetables and even meat, but if you do it wrong, you could end up with botulism or other nasty things, so always follow the directions!
Third, recycle anything you have leftover. Composting is a great way to do this. Composting “eliminates methane emissions, as food decomposes aerobically (as long as the pile is turned)” (Bloom, American Wasteland 19). It is easy to start your own pile. Designate a spot in your yard or purchase a container and dump all of your yard clippings, food scraps, and other compostable materials in it. There are many different kinds of compost containers ranging from a simple wooden box to a barrel on a stand so it can be spun to turn the pile over. My family has four large bins made out of old wooden pallets in the corner of our yard. We also have an empty gallon ice-cream bucket sitting next to our sink for food scraps that we empty into our compost pile. Make sure you turn the bed over with something like a pitchfork about once a week or every two weeks. Then, if you have a garden or flowerbeds, use the soil from your compost as fertilizer. If you have a good combination of different things in your compost pile, this soil will fertilize your plants even better than commercial fertilizer and is not harmful to the environment. For all the information you could ever want on composting, visit the EPA’s website and search “compost”. This isn’t the only way to recycle your food, however.
Another great way to recycle your food scraps is to raise chickens. Chickens not only are great pets, but they also turn your table scraps into eggs! They take about as much time as a cat, their coop does not take up much space, they do not eat much store-bought chicken food if you feed them table scraps and weeds, and they are quite enjoyable to watch. In Lexington, hens (no roosters) are allowed in city limits as long as they are enclosed in a cage or wire run. Check your local laws to see if there are any restrictions for chickens in your town. If you are thinking about getting chickens, a great resource is Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickensby Gail Damerow.
Besides the EPA’s recommendations, most sources have two other suggestions. First, eating less meat will reduce your food waste. Almost 20 percent of all edible meat ends up in landfills (Bloom, “A Food Waste Primer”). It also is very energy inefficient – it takes 35 calories of energy to make 1 calorie of beef (Bloom, American Wasteland 19). Second, use your common sense about expiration dates. Bloom says, “Expiration dates send much food to a premature death. First, date labels are voluntary; infant formula is the only product mandated by the FDA to have a use-by date. And because there’s so much caution built into these dates — which refer to food quality, not safety — they are best ignored. Trust your senses instead” (“A Food Waste Primer”). If the food still looks and smells okay, then it is most likely safe to eat. I would not go as far as my grandma, who scrapes mold off bread and then eats the bread as if nothing is wrong, but it is safe to drink the milk that is one day past its expiration date, as long as it smells okay. If consumers incorporate some of these suggestions, they can greatly reduce their food waste.
America has a huge food waste problem, and it is not going to change overnight. Each person making a few small changes will inspire others to do the same. If consumers reduce their food waste and pressure the companies they buy it from to do the same, we can start a food revolution. We can shrink that Rose Bowl amount of wasted food just by doing our part.
Bloom, Jonathan. “A Food Waste Primer: Eat It Up.” Culinate. Culinate, Inc., 12 Oct. 2011. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
— American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What
We Can Do about It). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2010. Print.
— “The Food Not Eaten: Food Waste – Out of Sight, Out of Mind.” Culinate. Culinate, Inc.,
19 Nov. 2007. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
EPA. “Basic Information about Food Waste.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 08 Feb. 2012. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
— “Household Food Waste.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 1 Nov. 2011. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
Huff, Mickey. Censored 2012: Sourcebook for the Media Revolution: The Top Censored Stories and Media Analysis of 2010-2011. Ed. Project Censored. New York: Seven Stories, 2011. Kindle Ebook.
O’Hanlon, Larry. “Food Waste Epidemic in America.” Discovery Channel. Discovery Communications, LLC., 24 Nov. 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
Sleeth, Nancy. Go Green, Save Green: A Simple Guide to Saving Time, Money, and God’s Green Earth. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House, 2009. Print.