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An unappetizing picture: Americans are wasting ever more food

Years ago, I read an essay by the English novelist Lawrence Durrell in which he described cooking with a chef whose name and nationality, unfortunately, I’ve forgotten.

What I do remember, however, is how the chef insisted on using every last scrap of food the two men had purchased for the meal. Every vegetable peel. Every chopped bit of herb. Every seed.

Nothing was wasted.

That essay sprang into my mind Friday while I was interviewing Kevin Hall, an investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDKD) in Bethesda, Md.Hall and his colleague, Carson Chow, published a study last week in the open-access journal PLoS ONE about food waste in the United States. (Full disclosure: My son-in-law also does research at NIDDKD.)

Their findings present a very unappetizing picture of Americans’ wasteful food habits — findings that are particularly pertinent during this holiday season, when we gobble down some of our biggest meals of the year and stuff our refrigerators with leftovers that often end up in the garbage (if we’re fortunate enough to have leftovers, that is, and aren’t among the one in eight Americans on food stamps).

What Hall and Chow found was that Americans are wasting food at a rate of 1,400 calories per person per day. That’s up from 900 calories a day in 1974.

In other words, we’re throwing away 50 percent more food today than we did 30 years ago.

That wasted food accounts for a stunning 39 percent of the U.S. food supply — a figure much higher than the 27 percent estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We were kind of surprised,” Hall told me, with understatement. (Both he and Chow are Canadian, which may explain his lack of hyperbole and Chow’s wry comment on his blog, Scientific Clearing House, that just 10 percent of America’s wasted food would be enough to feed all of Canada.)

Wasting and eating more
As the study notes, we’re wasting more food even as we get fatter. Why? Americans seem unable to pass up a good bargain (or a good ad campaign).

“We have all this extra supply of cheap, continuously available, food,” says Hall. “People are going to find a way to sell it to you. It’s not that much of a surprise that people have eaten a portion of it and wasted the rest.”

That discarded food “is the missing mass of the American obesity epidemic,” Hall explains. In that respect, the waste is a good thing. “If we had eaten it, we’d be even fatter,” he says.

A waste of oil and water
In their study, Hall and Chow also calculated the impact of all that wasted food on the environment. 

“It translated out to about 300 million barrels of oil, or about 4 percent of total U.S. oil consumption,” says Hall.

Furthermore, growing food that will never be eaten absorbs about 25 percent of the freshwater used for agricultural purposes (which comprise about 70 percent of all our freshwater usage).

In addition, says Hall, “if the food had been eaten, we would have stored it as fat or burned it off and produced carbon dioxide, which has a lot less of an environmental impact than methane.”

Methane — considered 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — is what food waste rotting in landfills produces.

And speaking of landfills, Hall and Chow point out that the 50 percent increase in per capita food waste over the past 30 years parallels a similar increase in per capita solid food waste — a nice independent corroboration of their findings.

What you can do
Wish now that you hadn’t tossed away all those Thanksgiving leftovers? It’s not too late to change your wasteful ways. And it wouldn’t be the environment alone you’d be helping.

“If we could cut back our food waste by just 25 percent, which doesn’t seem unreasonable, that would be enough to fully feed 40 million people,” says Hall.

With the caveat that consumer advising is not his expertise, Hall did offer, when pressed, a couple of tips to people who would like to reduce their food waste:

1) Plan your meals better. “Do your shopping on Fridays and your cooking on the weekends,” says Hall. “Most people can prepare and cook a lot over the weekend.” You can then eat those prepared meals all week. If you wait to cook during the week, however, you may find yourself too tired and, thus, you may opt for a shortcut, like ordering out. Meanwhile, the food in your fridge rots.

2) Don’t turn up your nose at “imperfect” produce. A lot of wastage (40 percent by some estimates) occurs long before the food reaches the kitchens of consumers. Growers and suppliers simply toss crooked carrots or odd-sized tomatoes because they know consumers won’t buy them. “Farmers and growers overproduce to meet these very high standards,” says Hall. If we were less picky (odd-shaped food is just as nutritious and delicious), less food would be wasted.

Oh, and by the way, you needn’t feel quite so smug (as I did) if you compost your kitchen scraps or participate in one of Hennepin County’s organics recycling programs. Composting food waste is certainly better than simply throwing it into a landfill, says Hall. But, he adds, one study found that when people were given special garbage bags to collect items for composting, they actually increased the amount of food they wasted.

Just some food for thought.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 11/30/2009 - 07:26 pm.

    Thanks for the additional details on this story, Susan.

    And just a brief fan note to say how much I enjoy your posts in general.

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