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Because America produces twice as much food as needed per person, Thanksgiving’s celebration of abundance seems outdated.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.
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.
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.
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.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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