The food not eaten

Food waste: out of sight, out of mind

November 19, 2007

In America, the fourth Thursday in November gives us special permission to heap food on our plates. While this ritual used to be unique to Thanksgiving, it has become increasingly routine in our daily lives.

Because America produces twice as much food as needed per person, Thanksgiving’s celebration of abundance seems outdated. Yes, we cherish this holiday. But we’d have more cause to give thanks if we valued food more and made better use of our excess.

As a symbol of American abundance, Thanksgiving hints at just how much food there is to squander. And squander we do, from farm to fork. More than 40 percent of all food produced in America is not eaten, according to research by former University of Arizona anthropologist Timothy Jones. That amounts to more than 29 million tons of food waste each year, or enough to fill the Rose Bowl every three days. Nationwide, food scraps make up 17 percent of what we send to landfills.

This waste often goes undetected. “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.”

We live in a culture of excess, and food is no exception. The average American wastes more than half a pound of food per day. I’m no mathematical whiz, but that would be a whole Quarter Pounder at lunch and dinner. When you count what’s put down the disposal, 25 percent of what enters our homes is not eaten, Rathje reports.

And as we can all attest, restaurants’ massive portions fill their large plates, our stomachs, and then their dumpsters. Exceptions to this squandering — like T.G.I. Friday’s “Right Portion, Right Price” menu — are few. Every day, Jones calculates, American restaurants throw away more than 6,000 tons of food.

Why do we waste so much food?

There are consequences to our national habit of sending food to landfills. American food waste has significant environmental, economic, and cultural ramifications.

Wasting food squanders the time, energy, and resources — both money and oil — used to produce that food. Increasingly, great amounts of fossil fuel are used to fertilize, apply pesticides to, harvest, and process food. Still more gas is spent transporting food from farm to processor, wholesaler to restaurant, store to households, and finally to the landfill. That’s why Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that it takes more than one calorie of fossil-fuel energy to yield one calorie of food.

Food rotting in landfills contributes to global warming. Landfills are America’s primary source of methane emissions, and the second-largest component of landfills are organic materials. When food decomposes in a landfill, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Furthermore, wet food waste is the main threat to groundwater or stream pollution in the event of a liner leak or large storm.

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Financially, wasted food costs America more than $100 billion annually, says the University of Arizona’s Jones. (The USDA’s most recent estimate on the cost of food waste — $96 billion — is 10 years old.) Closer to home, the average four-person household wastes about $600 of food each year.

If you’re thinking “Not in my house,” consider what’s in your kitchen trash and the back of your fridge, what you put down the disposal this week, and what you’ve recently declined to take home from restaurants. The food items we often waste stem from impulse purchases, recipes we intend to but never make, and our failed best intentions. “People don’t match purchasing with actual consumption,” says Jones. “They’re buying things they don’t eat because they see themselves as healthy and environmentally friendly. By the time the weekend comes around, you go to make that salad and it’s turned to mush.”

Cultural shifts hasten American food waste. Due to the obesity epidemic, increased portions, and a diminished valuation of food, the “clean your plate” ethic has evolved to “eat what you like.” This contributes to elementary students wasting more than 25 percent of their lunches. “On the days they’re serving broccoli or cauliflower, you look in the garbage and it’s all green or white,” says Ethan Bergman, a professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at Central Washington University who studies school nutrition.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the quality of Sloppy Joes, kids waste about $2 billion of taxpayer dollars through the National School Lunch Program. And the majority of cafeteria managers surveyed by the General Accounting Office felt that packed lunches accounted for at least the same amount of waste as school-provided lunches.

Kids’ actions communicate that, in their view, food isn’t that valuable. By the numbers, it isn’t. Food spending represented just 10 percent of disposable personal income in 2006, the lowest it’s been in the more than 70 years the USDA has tracked it. While rising oil prices and competition from ethanol will increase food prices, income will likely rise as well.

If food is cheap, why is it bad to waste it? For starters, there’s the aforementioned environmental impact. And food has worth beyond its monetary value. That’s why Americans are seeking out local and organic food, shopping at farmers’ markets, and reading books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Much food waste can be composted.

Given the prevalence of food waste, what can we do to keep it out of landfills? The Environmental Protection Agency provides a useful resource with its Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy. At the top of the list is “source reduction,” or creating less excess. For people like you and me, that means planning dinners, making specific shopping lists, and sticking to them. At restaurants, it suggests ordering sensibly and taking home leftovers.

After source reduction, feeding hungry people through food recovery or gleaning is the next best way to curb food waste. Food-recovery groups rescue edible but unsellable food from supermarkets, restaurants, and institutional kitchens. Gleaning, meanwhile, is the practice of picking crops that a farmer plans to leave in the field. Whole fields are often left unharvested because the crop’s market price won’t justify the expense.

Feeding animals comes next in the hierarchy, so don’t feel too bad about slipping your scraps to Spot. On a larger level, hogs, cows, and other livestock make great use of commercial food waste. Many independent farmers are thrilled to reduce their feed costs while diverting food from landfills. This practice used to be common for households, as food scrap-filled “garbage” was collected separately from “trash” in many locales. Philadelphia’s Division of Sanitation only stopped its food-scraps collection program in 1995.

Fats and greases should be diverted to rendering plants that make soap. If you’re brave enough, you can try this at home. Increasingly, used cooking oil is being used as a fuel source for biodiesel vehicles, or “grease cars.”

Another waste-to-energy scheme is anaerobic digestion. While it’s not yet on the EPA’s hierarchy, the process harnesses bacteria to convert food and yard waste into biogas that can power vehicles or create electricity. Americans have long used the process to create energy from animal manure, but businesses on both coasts will soon use the process to transform supermarket and municipal food waste into power.

At the very least, food should be composted. Many individuals, schools, universities, hospitals, and municipalities have been doing so for years. Composting costs roughly the same as regular waste diversion and, depending on landfills’ tipping fees, can be even cheaper.

What comes at a high price, however, is wasting a resource like food by sending it to landfills. When that happens, we squander the time, money, resources, and effort that went into producing that item while ignoring the environmental impact.

Food loss may be somewhat unavoidable on Thanksgiving. But during the rest of the year, Americans should just say no thanks to wasting food.

Jonathan Bloom is a journalist writing a book on wasted food in America. When he’s not combing through the discount produce rack, he’s blogging on the topic at Wasted Food.

There are 23 comments on this item
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1. by Ashley Griffin Gartland on Nov 20, 2007 at 9:34 AM PST

Thank you for raising an important issue! I hope it encourages readers to start paying attention to the food they eat - and the food they throw away. Perhaps with your guidance we will all find ways to reduce the food we waste.

2. by Emily on Nov 21, 2007 at 6:17 AM PST

This is an important concern that I also feel strongly about. I have a project for my Participation in government class; I have to write a letter to someone about such problems, and I would like to write a letter to Johnathan Bloom. I was wondering if there was an address available for me to write to. If there is could you send it to my e-mail address? Thanks.

3. by OpusOne on Nov 21, 2007 at 7:41 AM PST


You can contact him on his blog, check his press page and you will find an email address for him...good luck!


4. by Farmer de Ville on Nov 22, 2007 at 5:10 PM PST

I can tell you that as a Director in University Food Service, this is one of our very biggest concerns, and one of the toughest to deal with. We compost what we can, we send bins full of scrap to hog farmers, we try to be attentive and careful with our portion sizes - even with all of this, the amount of waste can be disheartening. Good for you for bringing it up!

- Farmer de Ville

5. by Bri Brownlow on Nov 30, 2007 at 12:12 PM PST

This is such an important topic and I applaud Jonathan for his thoughtful article. There are just so many issues that wasted food is a symptom of. In terms of school lunches and kids wasting food, a lot of that has to do with the affluence and nonchalance our society has developed over the years. Nothing has value anymore. Also, when kids aren’t invited to participate in their food production and preparation, it doesn’t mean anything to them to throw it away. It’s absolutely true that we often have some idea of eating “healthier” and buying a bunch of veggies that then liquify in the fridge before we get to them. Composting at least helps turn it into useful soil in our own kitchen gardens. Thank you for this thought provoking essay.

6. by James Berry on Feb 7, 2008 at 10:47 AM PST

I think it’s interesting as a consumer to ponder the different ways in which I can have an affect on this problem. Surely, I have ultimate control after the food is in my home: what do I waste before it gets to the table, after it’s on my plate, once it’s been sitting in the refrigerator for a week, etc.

But I believe a big component of the food-waste problem happens before the food is ever purchased by a consumer, and yet we as consumers affect this as well. There is a huge amount of food thrown away on the farm, in the packing plant, or even at the supermarket, simply because we as consumers will often not buy a slightly bruised apple or a misshapen (but otherwise perfect) pepper.

Being willing to accept “real” food, not picture-perfect food, can help to reduce food waste and also help to wean our food system off of herbicides and pesticides that may harm both the environment and our bodies, and which are used in the pursuit of food that looks good to the consumer.

7. by anonymous on Feb 18, 2010 at 11:01 PM PST

The USDA Report says that 96 billion pounds of food was wasted not 96 billion dollars were spent. Are u getting your facts from another report other than the report linked? Also if you could provide a link to the Jones study it would be extremely helpful.

8. by marc on Mar 28, 2010 at 6:14 AM PDT

Supermarkets are the worst for throwing away perfectly fine foods.I’ve been a manager in a few stores and witnessed cases being trashed daily from every department.2 full dumpsters a day for 1 store.Why can’t these meats be frozen the day of experation date and be given to food banks.Liability is a big issue I guess.3-4 shopping carts of bread and bakery items daily,uboats of produce,full cases of grocery items because of one broken jar in case.There has to be a better way or a system in place to monitor this waste and put it to use to help out the needy.

9. by Gizene Luciana Pereira Sales on Nov 6, 2010 at 11:28 AM PDT

I´m a nutritionist and an university teacher in Brazil and my graduation research was based on solid waste generated in 3 popular public restaurants (for poor people that pay 0,50 cents and the government pay the rest). Each restaurant produces an average of 3000 lunches per day. Each month I stayed in one restaurant. The total amount of food waste generated in all 3 restaurants was 49,88 tons of solid waste and the organic one was 93.21%. I would like to know which Food Service University Mr. Farm de Ville are you from? I intend to do my PHD outside Brazil and I don´t know any Food Service University

10. by Barbara on Nov 24, 2010 at 10:43 AM PST

Perhaps unthinking people do waste a lot- new clothes, new cars, new toys, etc. But I found a blog last night that concentrated on “good news”, and loved it. Here in Oregon, most grocery stores send their excess to food banks. There could be more awareness about produce that is wasted. Produce managers often don’t want to take the time to keep boxes of produce around. As soon as an apple hits the floor, it is sent to the garbage. But usually anyone who gets in touch with the store can come pick up that produce for their compost or animals. I personally like to check out the small stores that bag up distressed produce and sell it at a lower cost. Food in my frig that doesn’t get eaten, goes into my compost bucket- egg shells are tossed into a box to use around veggies to keep the slugs out. My dinners are often built around soups that I make from ingredients that need to be used up. From working with the local Better School Food MOvement, I know that there is a lot of food thrown out by students- and that is encouraged by the USDA and the schools. Students are required to take a certain amount of veggies, but then the garbage can is right there so that they can throw them away. A woman told me that when she was a kid, the teachers would patrol the lunchroom. If kids weren’t eating their vegs, they would have to explain. If they dallied with eating them, they missed recess. If they said they weren’t feeling good, they got sent to the nurse. So she said it was easier to eat the veggies than go through all that. Sounds like a great idea- back to basics. But at Thanksgiving, lets give thanks for all the thoughtful people who live with care for the earth and use things wisely!

11. by anonymous on Dec 6, 2010 at 8:54 AM PST

I like this article super helpful thank you so much so shocking that people waste so much c’mon feed the hungry kids in Africa!!!!

12. by Deborah Madison on Dec 27, 2010 at 11:57 AM PST

Excellent article - thank you so much for this kind of thinking.
In observing a school lunch in France, I watched one of the lunchroom ladies quietly tell two girls who were about to throw away the bread they didn’t eat to not take so much next time. It wasn’t a heavy reprimand, but it did make the issue of wasting the bread quite clear.
I wonder what it would be like for kids to see all the food they waste at school, if it were put in a big transparent container instead of a garbage
can.So much of our waste remains invisible With garbage disposals ‘now you see it, now you don’t’. We opted not to have a disposal. We compost instead which means we’re handling garbage, scraps, and yes, sometimes waste —daily. It’s always something to think about.

13. by Judy Chivers on Feb 14, 2011 at 11:51 AM PST

My mother is 89 years old and loves to eat out. Her appetite is very good, however, the volume of food intake is smaller. She is very conservative with money and delights in getting her monies worth by taking home half her meal to enjoy the following day. She calls it her two for one. She likes the better more expensive restaurants and of course we all go dutch. When people talk of food waste I always think of my mother.

14. by Deborah Madison on Feb 16, 2011 at 8:27 AM PST

Judy - that makes so much sense in more ways than one. Good for your mother!

15. by anonymous on Nov 29, 2011 at 1:52 PM PST

Should I say...EpicMealTime? Lol

16. by anonymous on Dec 9, 2011 at 2:16 PM PST

Children waste alot of food in our lunchrooms, because the food is terrible. We live in one of the richest counties in New Jersey. The food is unhealthy, not eye appealing, & not made with many fresh ingredients.

17. by Alysa on Jan 7, 2012 at 4:25 PM PST

The facts on here were astounding. I had know idea we wasted so much food! I am trying to get my school to compost and use biodegradable trays. If anyone would like to sign our petition to change the way lunches are please come to our website!

18. by anonymous on Jan 9, 2012 at 8:14 AM PST

We want to start slaughtering Horses to feed the poor when we already waste most of the food we produce?? Why not use the food that is still okay that the stores and restaurants throw out to feed the poor? Why add another type of meat?

19. by anonymous on Jan 27, 2012 at 6:49 PM PST

To be perfectly honest I had not been concerned or troubled at all of what actually goes to waste, before I had to do a essay on Waste In America for school. I am shocked and disgusted that this would be happening, especially when so many in the U.S. alone go hungry. What is even worse is that on the Foodnetwork,-they had a special ,The Big Waste- there were some cleaning machines to de-beak and de-feather the chickens. The machine broke some bones in a chicken and it was marked as “unsellable”. This was once an innocent animal that had to lose it’s life and was never even eaten!It is grotesque and depressing to know that perfectly good food ends up in a landfill to posion our Earth.

20. by anonymous on Apr 7, 2012 at 5:00 PM PDT

I’m wondering if these statistics are only for consumer waste, or if it includes the manufacturers of food as well. I work for a national chip producer, and we throw away shocking amounts of chips, often post-production, often for technicalities (e.g. printing is offset on the bags, or bags weigh 16.5 instead of 16.0 ounces). Our goal is 1%, but we’re usually closer to 3-4% waste, which represents thousands of pounds per hour being dumped. Anyway, something to think about.

21. by anonymous on Aug 11, 2012 at 2:57 AM PDT

Hi may I know where you got this article from? Very important as I’m using this article as a basis from my project, would really appreciate it if you get back to me soon. Thanks!

22. by anonymous on Oct 7, 2012 at 6:30 AM PDT

how can i get this article and just want to know what the green cycle that has been done in food manufacturing

23. by anonymous on Dec 6, 2012 at 4:04 PM PST

My name is Kyle, and my school throws away three dumpsters worth of food during one lunch period! All on food we don’t like. I have a few ideas

1 bring food to next class and eat
2 use it for compost
3 give to farms
4 allow sharing in schools
5 less talk, more eat
6 leftover non perishable items bring home
7 ask to refrigerate and eat tomorrow

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