Food Waste Is a Global Problem, UN Report Finds

We waste enough food to feed every hungry person on this planet. Here's how to NOT contribute to that problem.

May 18, 2011

You gonna eat that? Food waste costs you money, but there are ways to make sure everything you buy ends up on the table.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Food waste: We're all guilty of it. Most of the time, it seems relatively harmless—a rotten apple here, a shriveled-up carrot there, a half a cup of milk a few days later. But taken together at the population level, all that food waste adds up, and the numbers are pretty staggering.

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In the U.S., 96 billion pounds of food are thrown away every year. That equals about 1,400 calories per person per day. To produce that food, we use 185 million barrels of oil, 23 times more than the amount that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico during last year's oil spill (theoretically, all the oil and natural gas extracted from U.S. offshore-drilling operations could be used to produce wasted food).

A new report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has produced even more disturbing statistics. Globally, 1.3 billion tons (billion, with a "b"!) of food go to waste every year. That's nearly an entire ton of food for every single hungry person on this planet! The report found that citizens in the developed world are among the worst food-wasters. In Europe and North America, 209 to 253 pounds of food are wasted per person per year, while in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, it's a mere 13 to 24 pounds per year. Developed countries are also more likely to waste food on the consumption end—we throw out food after we've bought too much, let our produce spoil, or decide we don't want those leftovers from the restaurant we went to last night—whereas in the developing world, food waste is largely due to the supply side, such as difficulties in harvesting food fast enough at the farm, and storing it, and keeping it cool while in transit.

Now that farmer's market season is here, we'll all be eating more fresh produce, and with the eye-pleasing displays at markets, it's very easy to buy more than we can eat in a week.

So here are a few ways to stem the tide of wasted food in your house:

• Preserve huge bunches of herbs by turning them into pesto or herb butter, or by drying or freezing them.

• Create a root cellar. Any cool, dark empty space—a closet, an empty kitchen cabinet—can be converted to a makeshift root cellar. And while you may associate root cellars with fall and winter root vegetables, spring and summer produce like watermelons and tomatoes will last a few extra weeks in a root cellar, too.

• Accept that the "Use By" date is totally arbitrary. Though there are "use by" dates on everything from milk to meat, they don't really mean anything. The government even admits as much on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Food Safety and Inspection Service website: "There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated." Use your nose. If it still smells fresh after the use-by date, don't toss it. If it's starting to smell rancid, don’t toss it—find another use for it. Which leads us too…

• Turn leftover milk into yogurt or cheese, or cream into butter. Dairy products can always be used for another purpose if they're starting to go bad. In fact, homemade ricotta cheese actually tastes better if your milk has started to go a little sour. If you have a cup or two of milk that's about to turn, use it for homemade yogurt. Or if you bought too much heavy cream for a recipe and aren't going to use it all, use the rest of it to make homemade butter.

• When in doubt, freeze it. Pretty much any leftover produce, be it fruits or vegetables, can be frozen before it goes bad. Same goes for cheese and meat. Fruits can usually be frozen whole, while vegetables need to be blanched (placed in boiling water for five minutes, then plunged into cold water immediately afterwards) before freezing. Freezing can affect texture, so use your frozen goods in casseroles or soups. Use glass or metal freezer containers to avoid wasteful plastic baggies.

• Don't waste bulk foods. Buying in bulk is a good way to save money and cut down on packaging. Just be sure you store it properly once you get it home, so it doesn't go stale or rancid before you have a chance to eat it. Learn a few tricks of bulk food storage, such as storing brown rice in your fridge and flour in your freezer, to cut down on waste.

• Go dumpster-diving. In the entertaining documentary Dive!, two enterprising filmmakers went dumpster-diving at their local grocery stores and found perfectly good—sometimes even organic— meat, produce, bread, and dairy products that stores were throwing out simply because there were slight imperfections. You may not be that courageous, but find out what your grocery store does with its unsellable foods. Encourage the store to donate it to a local food bank, the way Walmart, the world's largest retailer, already does. (And spell it out! If Walmart can do it, they have no excuse!)