Dear Ventana Chapter members,
Here is Carolyn Hinman’s second blog about projects and updates in the Environmental Studies program at CSUMB for our website.
Food Waste in America: Why it Matters and What You Can Do About It
By Carolyn Hinman
We are all guilty of it. That package of hummus shoved back behind the milk is now sprouting fuzzy green and blue disks of mold. The bunch of kale purchased last week at the local farmer’s market is sitting sad, wilted, and slimy in the back of the crisper drawer. The noblest intentions of making banana bread from that brown and spotty bunch on the counter are now just a bundle of black mush-filled regrets. From our shopping bags to our counter tops to our trash cans, the American food waste dilemma is a story being written every time we venture to the grocery store.
If you think that the occasional discarded grocery store purchase cannot possibly have much of an impact, consider the USDA’s 2014 report showing that at least 31% of the food produced and purchased in the United States is wasted on a yearly basis. Some estimates are as high as 40% or more. This massive food loss represents missed nutritional and economic opportunities for a population experiencing widespread poverty and financial insecurity. In 2010, of the 430 billion pounds of food available for consumption in America, 133 billion pounds did not make it to the table. 10% of this loss occurred in grocery stores, restaurants, and other retail locations, and 21% was food discarded by the consumer after purchasing it. Meat, including poultry and fish, dairy products, fruits and vegetables accounted for the majority of this loss, as these products have a shorter shelf-life than more processed goods. It is estimated that a combined $161.6 billion was lost as a result of food waste at the consumer and retail level, and an equivalent of 1,249 calories per person per day went uneaten. These levels of waste are unacceptable when there are children going without meals on the weekends, and families who cannot afford their weekly groceries.
Americans may currently be experiencing an "obesity epidemic," but according to Ann Morse, Program Director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, 49 million US citizens are food-insecure. This means they have "limited or uncertain access to adequate food, caused by either economic or social conditions." In 2013, 14.3% of American households were food insecure at some point in time. Children, the elderly, low-income families, and minorities are most susceptible to food insecurity, and frequently live in food deserts where there is limited access to fresh, healthy, affordable food. Lawmakers in several states have begun to introduce school nutrition programs to help mitigate the problem of hungry children by providing several meals and snacks throughout the day. Legislators have also worked to make food banks and food stamps more accessible to the needy, but these programs are needed in greater abundance to serve the growing number of individuals needing assistance.
This waste not only has a staggering economic and human impact, but wreaks havoc on the environment as well. The EPA estimates that in 2013, 35.22 million tons of food was discarded in America, and this food made up 21.1% of the solid waste in landfills. When this food waste breaks down it creates methane gas, one of the most dangerous and potent greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. Reducing this waste would make a significant contribution to decreasing our emissions and reducing the progress of global warming.
In California we are acutely aware of the importance of the quality and availability of water. Our state has been experiencing severe drought conditions for five years now, and efforts to conserve water statewide have been somewhat successful, but there is only so much that can be done at the residential level. Real change needs to come from the top down. The USDA estimates that between 80% and 90% of America’s potable groundwater is used in agricultural endeavors, from growing fruits and vegetables to raising livestock. Water is an invaluable resource that has essentially become endangered in California. Using so much of this liquid life to produce food that ends up rotting in a landfill is irresponsible and negligent. About 25% of the water used in the production of food is ultimately wasted. The NIH reported in 2009 that this wasted food is also associated with about 300 million barrels of oil each year, so the cost of transporting our food across state lines can be measured in fossil fuels and CO2 emissions in addition to dollar signs. This is a price tag we can no longer afford to pay.
The USDA has concluded that all food, regardless of whether or not it is consumed, puts pressure on the environment and availability of natural resources. These resources include land, forests and wildlife. Cattle raising produces greenhouse gas emissions and requires the destruction of rainforests. The transportation of food and use of farm machinery lead to air pollution and water pollution. Agricultural runoff harms marine life and creates hypoxic zones in the oceans. Unsustainable irrigation practices lead to the degradation and salinization of soil. It is time to reform our food production practices to ensure that we are able to live on this planet and sustain a global population expected to exceed 9 billion by the year 2050.
So who’s to blame for the food waste crisis in which we find ourselves? Certainly fingers can be pointed at food retailers, absent-minded shoppers, and diners whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs, but our government has been aware of the problem for decades. In 1977, a report called "Food Waste: An Opportunity to Improve Resource Use" was presented to the United States Congress, Comptroller General, and General Accounting Office. It set forth propositions for recouping losses and repurposing food otherwise destined for the trash. At the time this report was made, 20% of food produced in America was lost or wasted annually, amounting to an estimated at $31 billion in waste. The report recommended undertaking an effort at waste reduction, and that such a plan would increase the productivity of America’s food system, improve the efficiency of natural resources for food production, and would give us a chance to feed the hungry. These suggestions were dismissed and the waste has been growing unchecked since that time.
There are, however, some efforts being made to institute change. The EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge (FRC) is meant to engage businesses and organizations in preventing and diverting food waste within their respective daily activities. The challenge, however, is voluntary and offers neither monetary incentives nor repercussions for failing to adhere to the guidelines. Participants choose to get involved based on a desire to reduce their environmental impact, and potentially save money by virtue of less spending on food supplies and waste removal. With little impetus for change, progress will be slow and institutions will be more hesitant to improve their practices.
In addition to the lack of policy in place, most grocery stores in America stock only cosmetically perfect produce. The USDA has published a 73 page document listing in great detail the size, shape, color, and extent of deformity that is acceptable for fruits and vegetables available for public consumption in America. Produce that is not up to this caliber is discarded. Standards for whole, unprocessed fruits and vegetables are much more rigid than those for produce intended for processing, but rigorous cosmetic standards still apply to process-bound food. This means that food that does not fall within these superficial parameters does not even make it out of the fields in which it was grown. Farmers reject imperfect produce before it is even harvested because they will not be paid for it. The food that is left in fields across this country could feed the hungry many times over.
The American public is being duped into believing that cosmetically flawed produce is not acceptable for human consumption. We are also falling prey to misleading expiration and sell-by dates printed on packaging. The National Resource Defense Council’s Food and Agriculture Program released a report in 2013 citing misinterpretation of date labeling on food products as one of the leading factors in food waste. The language used in the current labeling system – "use by," "sell by," "best before" – is not regulated and leads to confusion on the part of the consumer. While the implementation of date labeling grew out of a desire to indicate freshness, dates are not hard and fast indicators of a food’s safety in regards to consumption. Most foods are safe for consumption far past the date stamped on the package.
Retailers are also stocking much more food than they can conceivably sell. A 2012 report by the National Resource Defense Council describes how, at the retail level, food waste is seen as a sign of good business. Grocery stores and restaurant executives view food waste as a sign of healthy quality control standards. The retail model says that customers buy more from displays that are full to overflowing, so stores overstock produce to the point that bruising and other damage occurs due to over-handling by staff and customers. Produce on the bottom of overstocked displays is damaged by the excessive weight of the produce on top of it. Prepared foods, meats, and bakery items are also stocked in excess, contributing to the 43 billion pounds, or 10% food loss, that occurred at the retail level in 2008.
Now that we have an idea about the extent to which food waste occurs in America, what can be done to rein it in? My next entry will describe the measures being taken by other countries to prevent food waste, and show that America is primed to institute policies of its own. Food waste in America is becoming somewhat of a crisis, and it is up to us to make changes to the faulty system, both in our own homes and on a national scale. Monterey is already doing so much to preserve our natural resources, but food waste is a problem that often goes overlooked. Our city can be a beacon for other American cities to look to for guidance if we can be willing to open our eyes and take responsibility for our part in preventing it.
Broad Leib, E., & Gunders, D. (2013). The dating game: How confusing food date labels lead to food waste in America. Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Resource Defense Council, New York, NY. Retrieved from http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/foodpolicyinitiative/files/2013/09/dating-game-report.pdf
Buzby, J. C., Hyman, J., & Well, H. F. (2014). The estimated amount, value, and calories of postharvest food losses at the retail and consumer levels in the United States. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
Comptoller General of the United States. (1977). Food waste: an opportunity to improve resource use. Report to the Congress.
Environmental Protection Agency. (2015). Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2013 Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/2013_advncng_smm_fs.pdf
Food Recovery Challenge. (2015, November 13). Retrieved from Environmental Protection Agency: Sustainable Management of Food: http://www2.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/food-recovery-challenge-frc
Gunders, D. (2012, August). Wasted: how America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill. National Resources Defense Council, 5. Retrieved from http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf
Hall, K. D., Guo, J., Dore, M., & Chow, C. C. (2009, November 25). The progressive increase of food waste in America and its environmental impact. Plos One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007940
IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change
Irrigation & Water Use. (n.d.). Retrieved from The United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service: http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/irrigation-water-use.aspx
Morse, A. (2015). Hungry for solutions. State Legislatures, 41(5), pp. 20-23.
Neff, R. A., Spiker, M. L., & Truant, P. L. (2015). Wasted food: U.S. consumer’s reported awareness, attitudes, and behaviors. Plos ONE, 10(6), pp. 1-16. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127881
United States Department of Agriculture. (2004, December). Official Inventory of Inspection Aids and 2 X 2 Slides. Retrieved from http://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Official%20Inventory%20of%20FV%20Inspection%20Aids.pdf