Here's a depressing statistic: Forty percent of the food produced in the United States goes into landfills instead of our mouths, according to a report from Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). That massive quantity of food, which amounts to 20 pounds per person per month, uses 25 percent of our country's freshwater supplies. It also consumes huge quantities of oil—185 million barrels of it every year—which is used to make the fertilizers and pesticides used on non-organic farms.
What's driving all this food waste? Every hand that touches food, from farmer to shopper, is partly responsible. For instance, low commodity prices on certain foods can mean that it's cheaper for a farmer to leave a field unharvested than to pay for labor, packaging, and shipping to a distributor.
Grocery stores follow the "pile it high, watch it fly" philosophy, which means they stock shelves to overflowing in an effort to get people to buy more food. In fact, the NRDC report's authors noted, waste at grocery stores is often considered a good thing because managers view it as a sign that the store is meeting quality-control and full-shelf standards. One source cited in NRDC's report estimated that one in seven truckloads of perishable foods sent to grocery stores is thrown away.
Restaurants serve enormous portions, and 55 percent of diners' leftovers are left behind. In addition to wasted dinners, the demand for extensive menus means that restaurant kitchens need a lot of perishable foods on hand to meet potential demand. Buffet-style restaurants are the worst, the report found, because uneaten food can't be donated due to health-code restrictions.
However, we the people waste the most food. The average family of four wastes 25 percent of its purchased food. That's $1,365 to $2,275 we spend every year on food that winds up in the garbage. The USDA offers a more conservative estimate that each consumer spends $390 on wasted food. Whichever figure you believe, it's good money being funneled straight to landfills (oh, and the USDA also calculates that $2 billion of US taxpayer money is spent trucking food to landfills).
The most wasteful food category is fruits and vegetables, perhaps not surprisingly. Of all the fresh produce grown every year, just 48 percent is consumed. The other 52 percent is wasted. Seafood is another big loser: Fifty percent of it is wasted. Meat and milk fare slightly better, with 78 and 80 percent consumed, respectively.
Reducing that food waste by just 15 percent, the report concludes, could feed half of the 50 million Americans who go hungry every year.
While you can't help the farmer pick his crops (unless you visit pick-your-own farms) or change the mentality of grocery store owners, you can change your own habits. Here are the easiest ways to cut down on food waste at home.
• Shop wisely. Create menus for the week, incorporating leftovers and foods that might spoil if not used up, suggests Lois Killcoyne, RD, food-preservation expert with the Pennsylvania State University Extension program. Before going to the grocery store, take an inventory of what needs to be used up. You can buy other items around those to create a meal.
• Be savvy at the store. Some of the biggest problems at the consumer end, the report noted, are store promotions that encourage shoppers to buy greater amounts than they've planned to and specials on items shoppers don't really need. If you fall prey to these, you wind up buying more food than you can eat, and it spoils before you can finish it. And food wasted equals money wasted, so that "great deal" goes straight to the garbage. Stick to your list and don't stray from it, no matter how good a deal you see on perishable goods. If you don't want to run to the store every day for fresh ingredients, a good rule of thumb when buying produce is to buy one that's ripe, one that's medium ripe, and one that's green, to prevent a mass spoiling.
• Accept that the "Use By" date is totally arbitrary. Though "use by," "sell by," and "best by" dates show up on everything from bread to bacon, they don't mean anything, and, except the dates on infant formula, they aren't regulated by the federal government. Though there aren't comparable figures for the U.S., a study from the UK found that roughly 20 percent of food was wasted because of confusion over these meaningless labels. So don't toss food simply because it's passed some arbitrary date on a label; after the UK study came out, the government there stepped in and banned certain ones. Use your nose and your eyes. If it still smells or looks fresh after the use-by date, don't toss it.
• Organize your fridge. Make sure everything in your fridge is visible so nothing gets shoved in the back and forgotten. Develop a weekly habit of going through the fridge and moving any about-to-go-bad produce, dairy, and meats to the front. Then eat up your leftovers. Put out a buffet of what's in the fridge for a fast, easy family dinner.
• Utilize your freezer. Fresh produce is great, but you can also opt for bagged frozen vegetables and fruits if your produce tends to spoil before you get to use it all. And freeze any fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs you have that are about to go stale. Even milk and cheese can be frozen before they go rancid. Fruits can usually be frozen whole, while vegetables need to be blanched (placed in boiling water for 5 minutes, then plunged into cold water immediately afterwards) before freezing.
• Cook smarter, and eat on smaller plates. The size of the average American dinner plate has increased 36 percent between 1960 and 2007, and that leads people to load up on food they can't finish. You can either switch to eating dinner off salad plates or just be smarter about your portion sizes. And if you do wind up cooking too much, eat your dinner leftovers for lunch the next day.
• When you must, compost. Sending scraps, leftovers, and perfectly good food to the landfill is more than just painful to your wallet. Food waste makes up 25 percent, by weight, of all garbage that gets sent to landfills. There, it decomposes and creates methane, a greenhouse gas that's 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Find a corner of your yard and start a compost heap, where unused food and scraps can decompose without producing methane, which is produced only in the oxygen-deprived conditions of a landfill.