Why Does America Waste Nearly Half Its Food?

In day-to-day living, average citizens regularly dispose of food they don’t eat at meals, as well as food that has passed its expiration date in the refrigerator or in the cupboard. In a similar fashion, over at the grocery store, items that have gone past their expiration dates are thrown out, and at restaurants food that hasn’t been served goes out with the evening’s waste.

We have come to take these things for granted. But as it turns out, such seemingly commonplace events are but an indicative portion of a huge story: the food waste problem in America. This is so true that author, blogger and food activist Jonathan Bloom has made it his life's work. “I grew up in a household where we learned to both respect food and enjoy it,” Bloom told Calmful Living. “That meant all of us having dinner together, and also saving all the leftovers. I once had a joke that my mother did not have the thimble-size Tupperware, but she had the next one up. The lesson I learned from that was nothing was too small to save.

“From that background of respecting food and enjoying it, I gradually went on to write about food as a journalist, and did that for a number of years as a freelancer. Then I had a volunteer experience in Washington, DC, at a place called DC Central Kitchen. It is a food recovery operation, which basically means they go around and recover food from restaurants, supermarkets and caterers—food that would otherwise be thrown out. The experience there showed me the sheer volume and quality of the food that gets disposed of. The question that formed in my mind that day was, what happens in cities and towns that don’t have this kind of operation? So that was the real experience that set me on this journey, and about five years later resulted in the publication of the book.”

Jonathan’s book is entitled American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). It is a comprehensive and fascinating look at the entirety of the food-waste problem in the US—how it came about, its true scope, and, most importantly, what might be done about it. In addition to the book, Bloom maintains a regular blog entitled Wasted Food, which follows current events and news on the topic.

In researching American Wasteland, Bloom uncovered some seriously startling statistics. “I think the most eye-opening stat would be that 40 percent of all the food produced in this country isn’t consumed,” Bloom said. “So 40 percent of everything grown and raised in the US ends up lost somewhere along the food chain; some of it doesn’t make it off the farm, some is disposed of by producers, et cetera—each step along the food chain. What we lose in households is a pretty eye-opening one for me: 25 percent of what we bring into our homes isn’t used. You could multiply that by your grocery bill and figure out how much money you’re throwing down the drain; but using the USDA’s spending estimates, I calculated that the average family of four throws out between $1,300 and $2,200 of food each year—and this is based on the USDA’s more conservative estimates. It definitely adds up, and we often don’t really realize how much money we’re throwing away.”

How did families—who a few generations ago were extremely frugal and resourceful—become so wasteful? “There are a couple of factors here,” Bloom explained. “Number one, people are busier these days with the advent of the two-working-parent family or more single-parent families. There isn’t as much time to convert the entire chicken into soup stock and create a whole other meal out of it, or things like that to repurpose leftovers into other meals. Consequently, there’s been a tremendous emphasis on convenience rather than using all of what we have.

“At the same time food has become even cheaper; we are pretty much at an all-time low when it comes to the percentage of household spending that goes toward food. It’s actually less than 10 percent of household spending. No other country spends as little on food. That has repercussions: when things are so inexpensive, we don’t tend to value them as much. So time has become much more valuable than money in a sense, and to a certain extent with our food supply, so that’s how we behave.”

Another amazing fact is the amount of food that doesn't ever make it off the farm. “So much of what is grown isn’t sold,” said Bloom. “Much of the time it’s economic. It’s a real tragic thing when you see what they call ‘walk-bys,’ where a farmer figuratively walks by an entire field without harvesting it because he’s not going to get the price that would really justify all the effort and resources of harvesting. Partly that’s because there’s an overplanting—a lot of growers will plant an extra field just in case some sort of blight strikes or there’s a problem with their main crop for a variety of reasons. So that’s a real big issue.”

Other produce that does make it off the farm might then be disposed of simply due to appearance, “Out of many of the foods that are grown and then shipped on, some don’t make the cut because of cosmetics,” Bloom continued. “There’s this real superficiality in our food system that is driven in a large part by customer demand—or at least perceived consumer demand—for pristine, perfect produce. So anything that isn’t the exact right size or shape, or doesn’t look exactly the part in some other way—whether it’s having a small blemish or maybe a bit of discoloration—those goods get cast aside and usually end up in a landfill somewhere throughout the food chain.”

Bloom quotes a statistic in American Wasteland that 49 million Americans today don’t get enough to eat. He has found that if this waste were only partially recovered, a high percentage of that hunger could be alleviated.

“When people think about hunger and waste, a lot of times the thing that comes to mind is the clean-your-plate mentality—‘Clean your plate because there are starving children somewhere.’ That’s not a literal action point—no one is going to take the scraps from someone’s plate and get them to somebody in need. But I think it’s an important notion to build awareness that there are people that go without, and it’s morally callous to throw out as much food as we do when more Americans than ever before are having a hard time getting enough to eat.

“One thing we could do is, before we put that food on our plate or on the plates of our family, we could be donating more of our food to food banks—whether it’s canned goods and shelf-stable items like we traditionally do; or there are also the homegrown healthier foods like we see with the ‘grow a row’ programs, where they’re getting people to plant a row in their backyard garden for donating.

“The other main thing I would say about getting food to those who need it is through food recovery. I really think there’s a need for an expanded food-recovery network in America, as exemplified in nonprofit organizations such as City Harvest and DC Central Kitchen, who are swooping in when food would otherwise be thrown out and rescuing it. There needs to be a more robust network, and hopefully retailers can play more of an active role in getting that food to people who need it, with the stuff that’s edible but unsellable. If you’ve ever worked at a supermarket, you know that at the end of every day there are all kinds of things that they’re not going to sell, whether it’s because of the date on the package or a slight imperfection—but that doesn’t mean it’s trash. There’s a way to harness that source of food.

“And under that food recovery umbrella, we really need to keep up and expand the gleaning operation, which is sort of the rural version of food recovery. These are nonprofit groups that usually get volunteers to go out into the fields and pick crops that would otherwise be plowed under. So there’s that, and also picking up large-scale donations from processors and big farms. There’s a real variety of operations there, and they’re all doing great work.”

The most impressive statistic of all is the actual effort it would take to completely alleviate hunger in the US, simply by curtailing waste. “I figured if we cut our waste by 25 percent, we’d be able to feed all of the hungry Americans—and it’s by a wide margin,” Bloom said. “It really wouldn’t take too much to eliminate hunger, but at that point it becomes a logistical question. Distribution is the key, or redistribution of our food. It’s very doable; it’s just a question of having the political and cultural will to make that happen.”

Visit Jonathan Bloom’s blog at www.wastedfood.com