In the United States, tens of millions struggle to get enough to eat, yet we throw away two-fifths of all the food we produce. That's 40 percent of the food we produce that never gets consumed.
Food is lost at every stage along the supply chain, from the farm, to the manufacturer, to the distributor, the retailer (both stores and restaurants), and in individual households. But surprisingly, it's individual households that are the single largest contributor. More than 40 percent of food waste happens in our homes.
To be clear, it is not just the food that's wasted. The resources, like water, land, seeds, labor and fertilizer that went into growing it, along with the animals needlessly slaughtered, are likewise wasted. Even worse, the vast majority of that wasted food ends up in landfills to generate methane gas, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and a huge contributor to climate change.
Food waste in America is a massive problem, on a massive scale, so massive it can be hard to comprehend and contextualize the statistics. Here are some of the key numbers to know about food waste in America.
The proportion of food wasted in America. For reference, that's like buying five bags of groceries and throwing two bags in the trash as soon as you get home. Of those two bags, the largest category, fruits and vegetables, make up 39 percent of food waste followed by dairy at 19 percent, grain products 14 percent and meat, poultry and fish at 12 percent. The food with the highest rate of waste is fish and seafood, with 31 percent wasted.
The annual cost of food thrown away each year in the U.S. That's enough to pay the salaries of every public school teacher in the U.S. or build 500 new elementary schools in each of the 50 states.
The percentage of total food waste that happens in individual households.
Pounds of food wasted by U.S. households each year. That's 38 million tons, or more than the weight of 100 Empire State Buildings.
The amount food wasted by each U.S. household each year. That is nearly half of a ton of food per household, or two and a half pounds of food each day. Not just peels and rinds, but actual edible food.
The proportion of U.S. consumers who say they toss food prematurely due to confusion about expiration dates. Another study found about 20 percent of household food waste is the result of date label confusion.
The average amount each household spends on food they will later throw away.
The number of Americans experiencing food insecurity, meaning they have trouble obtaining food because because of lack of money. This number includes 11 million children. Overall, 1 out of 9 Americans is food insecure.
The number of calories worth of food wasted each year. That's enough to provide 2000 calories per day for every person in America.
The proportion of U.S. agricultural water used to produce food that ends up wasted.
Acres of farmland in America used to produce food that ends up wasted.
The proportion of wasted food that is composted. More food goes into landfills than any other type of waste material. Of the food that's thrown away, 76 percent is landfilled, and just 5 percent is composted.
The proportion of methane emissions caused by food decomposing in landfills, producing the equivalent emissions of 37 million cars.
What Can You Do?
Faced with stats like these, it's natural to wonder what you can do to make a difference. The biggest change you can make is to actually eat the food you bring home. For most households, that would require making changes to the way we shop, cook, eat, store our food, and how we dispose of our food waste.
Shopping for Food
Unfortunately, if you shop for groceries once a week, there's no way your perishable meats, poultry, fish, fruits and vegetables are going to stay fresh that long. Shopping twice a week would help. But if that's not possible, the answer is careful meal planning, synchronizing food shopping with actual food consumption. Impulse buys and bulk purchases are big contributors to food waste.
Storing food improperly also drives waste. This can happen because the food spoils before it can be eaten, or because the fridge is so cluttered that the food gets lost, and then goes uneaten. This is related to the shopping issue; realistically assessing our food consumption will cut down on how much food we buy and thus how much we waste.
Cooking and Eating Food
One way to waste less food is to cook and eat your oldest food first. Preparing smaller meals will generate fewer leftovers (and so you purchase less food). And remember, meal planning doesn't have to mean preparing totally unique meals every day. There's nothing wrong with having the same thing for dinner two nights in a row.
Understanding Label Dates
The label dates on food are placed there by manufacturers to indicate the date before which the food will taste the best. They have nothing to do with food safety. (The one exception are the dates on baby formula.) In the case of milk, it's the date after which the milk might be sour. But if it's not sour, no need to pour it out! In general, believe your senses before you believe the label date.
Compost, Not Trash
If you have to throw away food, composting is much better than throwing it into the trash. If your city offers a composting program, use it. If not, start a compost pile in your backyard. And if you don't garden, donate your compost to a school or community garden. There are even services where you can donate your kitchen scraps, and they'll pass them on to someone to use in their compost pile.