America's Big Food Waste Problem - Pacific Standard

America's Big Food Waste Problem

Americans waste more food than they think, but some new thinking may make a social, economic, and environmental impact.
Author:
Publish date:
(Photo: Pete Gallop/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Pete Gallop/Shutterstock)

Wasting food isn't just an ethical matter. It's also a social, economic, and environmental issue. And according to a new survey, Americans say they're finally ready to do something about it, with some new approaches to food waste that might push us in the right direction.

"Wasted food is one of the areas we're just waking up to," says Roni Neff, an assistant professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University and program director at the Center for a Livable Future. And it's not just a matter of tossing your leftover hamburger. "It's 31 to 40 percent of the entire post-harvest food supply, and it costs a lot of money"—around $162 billion in the United States in 2010, Neff says.

The environmental impacts are vast as well. If we're wasting a third of our food, that's roughly a third of agricultural water and other resources that could have been conserved and 50 percent more pesticides pumped into the environment than anyone really needed.

Sell-by and best-by dates may give consumers the sense that food isn't safe to eat after a given date, when in fact those dates have little, if anything, to do with safety.

Despite those concerns, "we know almost nothing" about why people are tossing their food, Neff says. To find out, she and graduate students Marie Spiker and Patricia Truant asked 1,010 Americans a variety of questions about their beliefs, attitudes, and actions related to food waste. A slim majority of people said that throwing out uneaten food bothered them "a lot," though almost three in four believed they were wasting less than the average American. Remarkably, 41 percent of those who composted reported that tossing food that had been sitting around a while didn't bother them.

Downer though that may be, Neff says the data also reveal some important opportunities. "One of the simplest is to change our date labeling policy," Neff says. About two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that food safety concerns led them to discard food, but those worries may be based on false assumptions about safety and freshness. Sell-by and best-by dates, for example, may give consumers the sense that food isn't safe to eat after a given date, when in fact those dates have little, if anything, to do with safety. Making those labels clearer is "an easy fix," Neff says.

Educating people about food waste matters, too. Neff says campaigns that encourage composting, for example, should focus not only on composting leftovers but also on refraining from buying or cooking more than needed in the first place. Grocery stores could sell food a little closer to the expiration date, too—something former Trader Joe's president Doug Rauch is trying out in a new venture in Dorchester, Massachusetts. It "takes some marketing," but similar ideas have succeeded in France.

"Overall, the survey suggests Americans are really ready to take action," Neff says, noting that 43 percent of survey takers thought it would be easy to waste less food. "This is an opportunity for consumers to save money and do something for their families and the world," she says.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

Related