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Food Waste Study: The Staggering Amount of Uneaten Food in the U.S.

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Food waste - Dr. Axe

Despite that about one in eight Americans struggles to obtain enough food each day, food waste in America (and many other industrialized nations too) is a growing concern.

As writers from Pennsylvania State University put it, new research shows that “U.S. households waste nearly a third of the food they acquire,” resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of food being thrown out unnecessarily.

It takes a whole lot of energy — in the form of land, water, labor and shipping — to produce enough food for everybody to eat. This is one reason why food waste is such a shame.

Not only is edible food tossed in the trash, but it utilizes tons of valuable resources that could be put toward other efforts.

Food Waste Study Findings

A study published in January 2020 in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that 30 percent to 40 percent of the total food supply in the United States goes uneaten each year.

Below are some eye-opening food waste statistics and facts, based on the study’s findings:

  • Just how much food is wasted in the U.S.? The amount of thrown-out food each year is estimated to be worth a staggering $240 billion.
  • The average U.S. household is estimated to toss about $1,866 worth of food into the trash each year. Most households (about 70 percent) have waste estimates between 20 percent and 50 percent. Even the most “efficient households” have been found to waste about 9 percent of the food they acquire.
  • What are the main causes of food waste? Surveys show that “healthy dietary practices” and higher incomes are associated with significantly more waste compared to food insecurity. Not surprisingly, those who live in households where food is plentiful are more likely to throw out edible food compared to those who live in lower-income households or who participate in food‐assistance programs. On average, it’s been found that low‐food‐security households waste only about half the amount of what high‐food‐security households waste.
  • What is the most wasted food? Perishable produce, such as fruit and vegetables, is among the most likely to be thrown out foods. This is unfortunate, considering they are a valuable part of a healthy diet.
  • Larger household sizes have also been shown to be associated with less food waste compared to smaller households. This makes sense, because the more people living in a house, the more likely it is that someone will eat available food before it goes to waste. Single‐member households are associated with the highest rate of food waste — more than 40 percent on average. As a comparison, homes with six family members tend to waste half as much as single people.

Not only did the study focus on the amount and types of food wasted, but it also investigated other factors related to shopping behaviors and purchasing decisions.

Survey results revealed that shopping with a pre-planned grocery list, participating in food‐assistance programs and driving longer distances to grocery stores all helped cut down on the amount of food wasted by households.

Urban and rural households seemed to produce similar amounts of food waste, as determined by survey results. There also doesn’t seem to be a role of education in determining how much food a household throws out.

Cost of Food Waste

What is the real problem with food waste? Not only does it result in wasted resources that are used to produce uneaten food, but it’s also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that food waste is responsible for about 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas annually, an amount that, “if regarded as a country, would be the third‐largest carbon‐emitting country after the U.S. and China,” as explained by the researchers involved in the study mentioned above.

Based on available research, we know that some of the major benefits of reducing food waste include:

  • Reallocating resources, such as land and water.
  • Minimizing the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change and reducing other tolls on the environment.
  • Helping government officials invest more money into food-assistance programs and redirect surplus food to people who are truly in need.
  • Possibly helping feed those who live in food-insecure households if overbought food were to be saved and donated.

How to Not Waste Food

In order to start reducing the negative impact that waste has on the environment and worldwide food supply, experts have offered these food waste solutions and tips:

  • Plan ahead before shopping, such as by making a grocery list and meal plan, so you don’t overbuy.
  • Plan to buy produce (fruits and vegetables, which are most perishable) two or more times per week, rather than buying in bulk, which increases the chance for spoilage. Once home from the grocery store, place produce in the refrigerator or on a counter where it’s in plain sight.
  • Buy food in smaller quantities, and check expiration dates carefully. Be careful about buying in large quantities, particularly when the food is likely to spoil within several weeks.
  • Find creative ways to use edible food parts that you may ordinarily throw out, such as potato skins, carrot greens, peels of fruits, etc. Use these in healthy smoothies or to make juices, sauces or stews. Remember that even though ultra-processed foods may last longer, this isn’t an excuse to buy them often.
  • Freeze a portion of the food you buy if you suspect you’ve overbought. You can also prolong the use of veggies and fruits by canning or pickling them.
  • Share food with family, friends and neighbors. Research shows that larger household sizes are associated with lower waste. If you live alone or have a small family, you can act like you have a larger household by sharing with people who live nearby.
  • It may not be appealing, but go out of your way to obtain food, which will make you less likely to throw it out. Try growing some yourself or even driving to farther away stores to purchase food. Knowing that food is harder to obtain may also encourage you to organize a better shopping plan.
  • Purchase higher quality food (such as more organic foods) if you can afford it. This way, you’ll be more inclined to find ways to use it before it goes bad.
  • Understand the current food labeling system so you don’t throw out good food. Many consumers often misinterpret listed dates to mean that food must be discarded, but listed dates are more like “suggestions” by the manufacturer for when the food is at its freshest.
  • Use food that has spoiled to make compost, which benefits home gardens.

Conclusion

  • What’s wrong with the amount of food waste happening in America? A food waste report published in January 2020 revealed that the average U.S. household wastes about 30 percent to 40 percent of the food it buys, grows or is gifted each year.
  • This results in hundreds of billions of dollars of wasted food, plus a large environmental impact due to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Food waste is a problem that’s more common among those with higher incomes, healthier diets and smaller households.
  • Wondering how to reduce food waste? Here are some tips: Make a grocery list/meal plan before shopping; find ways to freeze or use edible parts of foods that you’d normally toss; share over‐purchased or near‐expiring food with neighbors or friends.
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