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The Many Implications of Your Wasted Food

America's finally set to tackle its food-waste problem. That's a good thing, because the issue runs very, very deep.
(Photo: Huguette Roe/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Huguette Roe/Shutterstock)

On Tuesday, the federal government announced a new, weighty goal: to cut the United States' food waste in half by 2030. Although the U.S. has one of the most robust food supplies in the world, most of it winds up squandered, uneaten in the dark recesses of landfills. In fact, about 40 percent of all the country's food goes to waste, the equivalent of about $162 billion each year. That's what makes Tuesday's announcement a big deal: It marks the first federal endeavor to reduce food waste nationwide.

Announced by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg, the goal reflects larger efforts to improve not just food insecurity, but our carbon footprint too.

"An average family of four [wastes] more than two million calories, worth nearly $1,500, uneaten each year," Vilsack said in a press release. "Our new reduction goal demonstrates America's leadership on a global level in getting wholesome food to people who need it, protecting our natural resources, cutting environmental pollution, and promoting innovative approaches for reducing food loss and waste."

Let's take a look at the facts on food waste:

  • If we cut down on food waste by just 15 percent, we'd save enough to feed more than 25 million Americans every year.
  • In the U.S., food waste makes up most of the solid waste dumped into landfills—which also happen to be the third largest contributor of methane emissions in the country. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that if global food waste as a whole was its own country, it would have the largest greenhouse gas footprint in the world, after the U.S. and China.
  • We're just starting to understand why Americans are so trigger-happy when it comes to tossing perfectly edible food. One fix: Re-vamping ambiguous sell-by labels. In June, we wrote about a new survey polling eaters on their food-waste habits. While about two-thirds of participants tossed food based on safety concerns, sell-by and best-by dates aren't hard and fast rules. Clarifying those labels would undoubtedly prevent a lot of perfectly edible food from winding up in the trash can each year.
  • Food waste is a hot topic in the media, with everyone from John Oliver to celebrity chef Dan Barber devoting airtime to the topic. In March, Barber opened WastED, a pop-up restaurant preparing gourmet meals from kitchen scraps, like beet pulp and pickle butts. That's great and all, but to meet the federal government's new food-waste goal, solutions have to be accessible to the average grocery shopper. "WastED's approach was also a refreshing diversion from the 'our-endive-was-picked-by-virgins-in-our-local-micro-garden' song-and-dance," writes James McWilliams. "That said, a pop-up eatery that invites the well-to-do to eat a meal made of garbage that costs more than half of what an average family of four spends on food every week isn't only peripheral to the problem; it's a media-hogging distraction from a far more prosaic but effective way to reduce food waste."
  • The average shopper wastes more food than anyone else on the food chain, including farmers and grocery stores. Wasting less food can be as simple as opening the freezer, says Dana Gunders, author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. Frozen food is actually just as healthy as it is fresh, if not healthier. Some produce is frozen within hours of harvesting and may have more nutrients than its raw counterparts, which can travels for days in refrigerators before making it to grocery store shelves. "Food storage is really an ancient art," Gunders writes. "Cave dwellers buried their hunted game in snow, and Inuits preserved seabirds in the hollowed-out bellies of seals. Storing food was a survival skill and the inspiration behind all sorts of delicious traditional foods that we still enjoy today. In this day and age, we have it pretty easy. What those cavemen wouldn't have given for a freezer."

Plastic freezer bags—our ancestors would be proud.