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Professor Emily Broad Leib reads the statistics about the 1 billion people going hungry every year—and 1.3 billion tons of food going unused—and shakes her head.
It’s not that the numbers are especially surprising. As the faculty director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, Broad Leib is well versed in the eye-popping facts:
In the U.S. alone, 35 percent of the 229 million tons of food available go unsold or uneaten—that’s $408 billion worth of food, according to ReFED, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste. Uneaten food is also responsible for 18 percent of all cropland use, 14 percent of all fresh water use, 24 percent of landfill inputs, and 4 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas.
“The scale of this problem is huge—and it’s actually a really stupid problem,” says Broad Leib. “The fact that there are so many people in this country going without food and at the same time, we are wasting so much? It needs to change.”
So how'd we get here?
Before you panic, you should know food waste has always been an issue—but it wasn’t always the massive problem it is today. According to the most recent data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 12.2 million tons of food waste was generated in 1960 compared to 63 million tons wasted in 2018. Between 2010 and 2017, there was an eight percent increase in food waste per capita.
There are several reasons for this. “For starters, our food system has gotten more industrialized over time, which means many more layers in the production chain for food to be wasted,” says Daniel Kurzrock, co-founder of upcycled food company ReGrained and an officer on the board of the Upcycled Food Association, a nonprofit focused on reducing food waste by growing the upcycled food economy. For example, juicing fruit and canning vegetables used to use the “cosmetic seconds”—the wonky-looking produce consumers didn’t want to buy. “These days, not only is food grown on a much larger scale," says Kurzrock, "but we also have a more fragmented food system—for example, we grow apples for the sole purpose of juicing—which leads to a huge number of farmers with surplus.”
Adding to that surplus that either gets left to rot in farm fields or tilled back into the land is the demand for picture-perfect produce—think spherically round apples with no bruises and cylindrical carrots without cracks or gnarly-looking appendages coming out of them. Our high standards for freshness can also lead food businesses to toss safe, edible food simply based on a perception that it is past its prime. In fact, according to ReFED, date label concerns account for half of all food waste at the retail stage.
Then, there’s the huge amount of food that gets wasted when we bring it home. In fact, households are responsible for the largest portion of all food waste—an estimated 76 billion pounds of food per year—and Broad Leib says one of the reasons for this is how little we actually spend on food each year compared to the rest of the world. (Americans spend just 6.4 percent of their household income on food, compared to the UK’s 8.2 percent, Austria’s 9.9 percent, Nigeria’s 56.4 percent and Pakistan’s 40.9 percent.) “If a huge part of your household income went to your food, you might be more careful with it. Because it’s such a small percentage of most people’s household income, it’s easy to not value it.” Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, adds that this shift in food steadily becoming a lower proportion of our household budget has contributed to food waste becoming such a massive problem: “An ever-expanding abundance of food steadily eroded American food thrift,” says Bloom. “Given that cheap bounty, we could and still can afford to be more picky with our food’s appearance. The rise of convenience, diminished kitchen knowledge, and our ever-increasing busy lives haven't helped either.”
New data from ReFED is encouraging, revealing that the amount of food waste has leveled off after increasing since 2016. Kurzrock says this is one of the silver linings of COVID-19. Sheltering in place and not wanting to go to the grocery store too often forced many of us to start meal planning in a way we hadn’t in years—or possibly ever—and it’s led to less waste: According to one study by The Food Industry Association and the Hartman Group, 36 percent of consumers are more successful in avoiding food waste since home-sheltering and 51 percent reporting that they expect to waste less food going forward.
“The climate crisis is this big, hairy problem that feels like an infinite doom scroll," Kurzrock says, "but food waste is a little easier to understand and feel empowered by." While Broad Leib and others work on food policy changes aimed at fixing our larger food waste issue, there are things you can do to make a dent at home. After all, each of us makes choices about food every day.
Here are some of the choices you should be making:
Plan your meals for the week (including leftovers!). One of the most impactful things you can do is shift your mindset from “What do I want for dinner?” to “What do I have for dinner?” says Kurzrock. Think about exactly what you’ll make for the week, how many people you need to feed, and what kind of leftovers you’d like to either have that week or freeze for later.
Cook one no-waste meal a week. From Kurzrock: "I always tell people to develop a few go-to no-waste meals, like stir fries and omelets, where it’s easy to incorporate any kind of produce that might be on its way out.”
Consider the hit your monthly budget takes if you waste food. Kurzrock likes to tell his friends to think about food waste this way: “Imagine leaving the grocery store with five bags and dropping two in the parking lot,” he says. “That’s how much food waste typically happens at home, even if you don’t think you waste a lot of food.” In addition to the fact that the food you waste could help the growing number of Americans struggling to put food on the table, consider how much money you’re essentially spending for no reason: One study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that the average U.S. household wastes nearly 32 percent of its food, which results in a total annual cost of about $1,800 per household. Per Carr: “You’re wasting money when you waste food. It’s as simple as that.”
Understand sell-by date labels (and learn how to revive food that’s on its way out). Food expiration dates actually have little to do with food safety, says Broad Leib, and they’re not federally regulated. Worse, the various categories of date labels—everything from “use by” and “sell by” to “best before”—makes it tough for consumers to decipher what they mean. The result? Most of us ditch foods that are perfectly OK to eat if it’s past the date we see on that label.
Support your local farmers and companies focused on fixing our food-waste issue. When you’re at the farmer’s market, strike up a conversation with the people selling the produce and ask questions about the growing season or health of the soil. “If you get to know your farmer, there’s a good chance you’ll care more about that food,” says Carr. Also, you can support companies focusing on this issue, whether it’s a food company using upcycled ingredients (like ReGrain) or selling “ugly” produce (like Imperfect Foods and Misfit Market). Whole Foods just listed up-cycled foods as one of their top trends for 2021. There’s also a huge movement around ‘ugly’ produce right now, “which leaves me wondering if it’s shoppers who want perfect produce or the distribution centers for the supermarkets that are driving this aspect of food waste,” says Kurzrock. “If you talk to the founders of Imperfect Foods, one of the first companies to offer cosmetic seconds to consumers, they’ll actually tell you that they get customer complaints that their food isn’t ugly enough.”
Compost your food scraps and waste. This is a great way to turn what you consider waste into something farmers consider a resource, says Rick Carr, farm director at The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to regenerative agriculture. “Composting is an incredible waste management tool for organics,” he says. “Those tomato seeds you’re not going to eat, the core of an apple, the peels from carrots or cucumbers—if you compost, all of it can go back into the soil as a valuable amendment.” Not having a garden isn't an excuse—here's how to get started.
Grow something yourself. When you know what goes into the process of growing your own food, it leads to a level of appreciation that may make you very hesitant to waste any part of it, says Carr. "I grew up gardening with my mother, and she always taught me to plant things in three: one for the earth, one for the rabbits, and the other for me. Thinking about it this way is a lesson in appreciating what we put in the ground and what we take out.” If you have kids, this lesson is one that’s great for them to learn as well, adds Carr. “There’s no one right way to solve this problem of food waste,” he says. “But when you try to waste less food and teach your kids to do the same, they’ll teach their kids. And that’s how we’ll make even a little progress.”
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