Food Waste, Inexcusable and Unconscionable

This is a distressing news report:

We need help: What are three things each family can do?

Forty percent of food in the United States is never eaten, amounting to $165 billion a year in waste, taking a toll on the country’s water resources and significantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council released this week.

The group says more than 20 pounds of food is wasted each month for each of 311 million Americans, amounting to $1,350 to $2,275 annually in waste for a family of four. Think of it as dumping 80 quarter-pound hamburger patties in the garbage each month, or chucking two dozen boxes of breakfast cereal into the trash bin rather than putting them in your pantry.

The report points out waste in all areas of the U.S. food supply chain, from field to plate, from farms to warehouses, from buffets to school cafeterias.

“Food is simply too good to waste,” the report says. “Given all the resources demanded for food production, it is critical to make sure that the least amount possible is needlessly squandered on its journey to our plates.”

Most of the waste comes in the home, the report says.

“American families throw out approximately 25% of the food and beverages they buy,” the report says. It cites several reasons, including that food has been so cheap and plentiful in the United States that Americans don’t value it properly.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Tim

    I think a lot of this is food expiring and having to be disposed of. We have lettuce that goes bad in our fridge all the time. Tomatoes and a lot of other produce can go pretty quickly too. And lunch meat doesn’t last all that long. We can try to buy less, but then we find we need to go to the grocery store more often – which isn’t too efficient.

    Then there’s the portion sizes. Some recipes end up making more food than our family ends up eating. We try to do left-overs but it doesn’t always work out.

    The thing is, if we tried to eat all the food that ends up getting tossed out, we would all be gaining quite a bit more weight. And if we bought less food than we do, we would be going to the grocery store 3 times a week. And it’s not always easy to tailor recipes to the portion sizes that fit our family. And re-heated pork chops don’t make good breakfast food, or something I can easily bring for lunch at work. And of course for dinner something else entirely will be prepared and served, so it sits for 3 or 4 days and ultimately gets tossed out.

    What to do? I don’t know. I can be pretty frugal and could eat like some bachelor survivalist. But my wife likes to cook nice meals and manage the household with a certain idea in mind of what sorts of foods should be readily available. So it’s a tough challenge.

  • Joe

    We need to live closer to our food source. Daily trips to the market we need for the day. But we shop at huge stores and get good deals on portion sizes way too big. The lettuce goes bad because we have too much at one time. Leftovers get forgotten because they are crowded out in our giant fridges.

  • Tim OK

    Tim (my name’s Tim, too), frankly I think you’re way off here. Simply put, we should not have to throw away half of our food!!! There’s no reason for it! There’s no excuse for it!! Expiring food? Food going bad? Wanting to make nice meals? You can minimize/eliminate all those problems.

    The proof is, as the report says, there are no other countries that have the same trouble as we do in this regard. The problem, then, is the way we think of food (and a lot of other materials, frankly). The US is a very consumer oriented, disposable country and at some point we have to learn that we are not the center of the universe.

    I really don’t think it’s much more complicated than that.

  • Kenny Johnson

    We throw out a lot for expiration too. I guess there’s way to better plans meals to use it all, but its often tough. I usually like leftovers, so I don’t throw out a lot of already prepared foods.

  • Kenny Johnson

    @Joe,

    But lettuce is a great example, because Iceberg is sold as a head and other varieties are sold in a “bunch” even at farmers markets, etc. So it seems unavoidable unless markets start splitting into smaller portions for sale — and then there would likely be a price premium on that (e.g. like when you buy diced onions, etc. )

  • Kenny Johnson

    Tim OK,

    I’m not saying its not a problem, but I have to admit that yeah, I don’t feel bad throwing away half of a 88 cent head of lettuce because I couldn’t find a use for the other half. Nor do I feel bad for throwing away a $0.33 banana that went brown and I didn’t get to in time. Maybe there is a problem, but I hate how this all gets turned around about how bad Americans are.

  • http://www.mycallingiq.com Natasha

    I think meal planning is a great step towards less waste – you can make sure you use your whole head of lettuce in different ways over several days. We try to meal plan once a week before we get groceries. If we lived closer to the store, going every couple of days would be even better for making sure our produce doesn’t go bad before we use it. I grew up in Germany where it was normal to go to the store each day and all our fridges were the size of mini-fridges.
    Committing to smaller portions is another small but important step we can take at home. My mom always taught me to start small and then if you were really still hungry you could take a second helping.

  • Tom

    Who has time to shop every day? We have waste because we buy fresh food and some of it goes bad by week end. Should we be eating more processed food? Don’t normal people get stuck at work some days and are not able to eat the meals they had planned? This is real life for most people.

  • http://www.hishersmusic.com brandontmilan

    As someone who is trying to completely change the way that I think about food, this hits close to home. I also have been involved, a bit, in dumpster diving. If you’ve never taken a peek inside of a grocery store’s dumpster, hold your nose and stick your head in… you’d be amazed at how much is thrown away. Meat, still in the package, still cold, still perfectly good to cook and eat, but its thrown away because companies have far too conservative expiration dates, and people are far too scared of eating something that has “gone bad.” My point is that this wastefulness is at nearly every level.

  • http://www.hishersmusic.com brandontmilan

    I also think that not wasting food takes a conscious effort. Here is what I think everyone can do: 1. Grow your own. Quite honestly, gardening, and even raising poultry, really isn’t as much work as everyone says it is. If you stay on top of weeds you’ll be fine, or if you look into mulching with wood chips, you’ll barely have to worry about weeds. Sure there is start up labor and work (no more than you could do in a weekend), but after that, it’s really not all that difficult until harvest, even then its not so big. And if you put the work into it, you will be far less likely to let it go to waste. You can grow a lot in a 10X10 garden.
    2. Eat what you buy. If you really have to have that extra large head of lettuce because its on sale for 88 cents, then you plan to eat salad until its gone. If you cook four too many pork chops for dinner, then you have four meals that you can eat later in the week… and most anything can be reheated if you do it properly. Get creative. I know that its so easy to think, “we don’t have anything to eat, lets go out,” but you probably have the stuff for ten meals going bad in the refrigerator…
    3. Buy fewer at a time of things that perish quick, but a lot of things can last for a really long time if you know how to store them. Put potatoes and other root vegetables and winter squash in a cool basement, crawlspace or garage for months. Buy a freezer to freeze meat, peppers, squash, berries, etc. etc. etc. Buy sandwich meat from the deli in large portions, and then bag it in small portions at home and keep all but what you’ll use immediately in the freezer. Freeze or refrigerate bread. learn how to can and pickle things.

  • http://theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    Reduce, recycle, and reuse. The three ‘R’s’ of sustainability.

    Growing your own food means you are more conscience of waste. You are less inclined to waste what you have taken time to grow.

    On a practical level we have compost bins, a worm farm and a Bokashi unit. Every single piece of food scraps is composted in some form. Zero waste.

  • scotmcknight

    OK, Mark what in the world is a worm farm and a Bokashi unit?

    We compost; we throw very little of food away as it is. Composting, if fun, can get a bit smelly. Like swamp gas. But I love doing it.

  • http://theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    A worm farm is a three tiered unit that has about a thousand worms (they do breed). It works like a compost unit. The worms eat through the kitchen scraps. (You can’t add milk based, scraps onions or citrus to the mix). As you fill one layer you add another tier to the unit and the worms make their way up to the next level when they have finished eating everything in the unit below. They love coffee grinds and vegetable peelings. As the worms eat through the scraps they reduce the size. They also produce castings (poo) which, when added to the soil make it rich and fertile. I add it to our working compost units (we don’t put kitchen scraps in the compost (generally). We only add garden waste there.

    Bokashi is awesome. It is a Japanese Kitchen compost unit originally designed for apartment living. You can add any food or animal material to it. Every time you add a layer of scraps you sprinkle a small amount of bokashi mix. This helps the scraps ‘pickle’. Once the unit is full you let it sit for a week or 4. Then you can either bury it in the soil or, as i do, add it to the garden compost. It brings in all kinds of beneficial microbes. Once the compost is ready add it to your veggie patch. It is, the circle of life!

    If you want pics of each of them just google the images. Our local council provides them for half price to people in our area.

  • Scot McKnight

    We have a double sided composter, Mark, so not sure if we need more. What happens to compost in the winter?

  • Scot McKnight

    Mark, I mean a real Midwest (not Adelaide) Winter.

  • http://theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    Cooler weather slows down the process. It sounds to me that what you have is a cold compost anyway (this can be the same in summer). A cold compost breaks down very slowly. The danger is it can ‘turn’ and go stinky!

    In order for compost to work well and produce the best compost it must be layered, like a good lasagna. (usually 2 parts dry waste Old leaves, cuttings etc to one part green or wet). This ignites the right chemical reaction. You know a hot compost is working well when it releases a slightly sweet odor and it is HOT! The heat is what breaks the stuff down.

    Cold compost is fine but I am not sure food scraps should be placed in them. I will have to check that.

    How does your two sided compost bin work? We don’t have them here in Aus.

  • Holly

    Not here, not us. I grow a lot of our food, so I know how much work it took to shovel the soil, plant the seeds, pull the weeds, tie up the plants, yada yada yada….then to pick it and either freeze it or can it. No way is it going into the trash easily.

    My husband and I just bought an old farmstead on 3 acres (moving this week, in fact.) I’ve inherited 22 hens and 2 roosters….and do they ever LOVE our kitchen scraps. No more composting of carrot peels, apple cores, leftover bits the toddler doesn’t eat. They are giddy, and I’m giddy to get their eggs in return. Bonus: When I clean out the coop and barn it will go on the garden area for next year – no other compost necessary.

    I dunno. I see the waste too, and I can’t stand it. I think it is so thoughtless and unncessary. I think mostly that our food comes too easily, we don’t give it a second thought. Easy come, easy go…

  • Mike M

    Holly: have a great time on your new farmette.
    We throw food scraps onto an open compost pile. The chickens and sheep (they’re free-range) eat at this buffet and whatever doesn’t get eaten composts which is used in the garden beds. The fly problem is practically zero with the chickens.
    The chickens even eat their own egg shells.
    In the winter we used to just throw scraps into a big garbage can in the garage. Since it’s unheated, the stuff just freezes and there’s no smell. In the spring, move it to the compost pile before it begins to stink. Now with the animals around, we just throw it onto the compost pile in winter, supplementing their grains.
    If we really want to end hunger and waste, I think every household should be required by law to have at least one chicken.

  • Mike M

    Oh wait, three things: 1. Grow as much of your own as you can. Even apartment dwellers can grow herbs, dwarf fruit trees, and chives. 2. Compost. I’m looking into the BioPod for next spring. 3. Buy from local farmers as much as you can. Removes several middlemen, you know where it’s grown and how it’s grown, saves on transportation costs, and eliminates the mass spread of food-born diseases found in agribusiness.

  • phil_style

    I’m an inner city apartment dweller.
    I have no garden, so a constant supply of fresh fruit/veg that can look after itself (on the tree) is not possible. However, I’ve been able to reduce my food waste to near nothing through one main technique:

    NOT HAVING A CAR!

    Being forced to only shop for what I can carry means I seldom end up with more that one or two days fresh veg/bread/fruit/milk etc that can spoil. It adds about 45 minutes to my working day, three times a week (a walk to supermarket and back), but it’s worth it.

    For bulk items (tins, bottled water and non perishables like sacks of rice) I order online and in large quantities.

  • Kristin

    I’m not exactly sure why but this is not a problem for us. We will fill up our fridge on Saturday or Sunday with a trip to the fresh farm produce place, and a week later the fridge is completely empty because we ate it all. Our freezer is pretty empty too. But then again I am always taking inventory of what food we have in the fridge and plan meals accordingly. I don’t think it’s that difficult.

  • Holly

    Thanks, Mike M! :)

    Another couple of things people can do – and I know it seems simple but it really does work and takes almost no effort:

    Get in the habit of making soup on the weekend. :) My husband makes it sometimes, and the kids call it “stuff soup.” Anything that might remotely go together gets tossed into a veggie soup. It USUALLY turns out good….except for that one time my husband got carried away and put both barbecue AND saurkraut into the pot….ha ha. But then….we got a funny memory in return.

    Second – Don’t let your kids grow up picky when it comes to what they will eat. :) Teach them gratitude for what they have, and that we eat to live, not live to eat. Food can be a hobby, or entertainment…growing food, cooking food, creating great dishes….this is good and fun and certainly okay – but still, at the core, food is a tool which enables us to live and function and serve, and we should be content with what we have.

  • Phil Miller

    The article itself gave the answer why this “problem” isn’t really much of a problem to a lot of people in the US – our food is inexpensive compared to the rest of the world. Counting eating out, the percentage of our disposable income we spend on food is less than 10%. The amount we spend on food from the grocery store is less than 5%. It’s simple math. Unless those numbers drastically change, we’ll continue to throw away a lot of food.

    Seriously, my wife and I have tried gardening, but the fact of the matter is for us it’s simply less expensive to by produce from the store rather than grow our own. I actually think the idea that we all should be farming and the romanticizing of growing your own food is something of a pipe dream. It’s simply not realistic to think that every family on the planet is going to grow its own food. It’s also not a wise use of the resources we have.

    When it comes to the food supply, we don’t really have a production problem. We produce more food than the current population of the world could consume. We have a distribution problem.

  • Beth H.

    Leftover produce can easily go into soups, stews, fruit smoothies or baked goods. I even drain the juice off of canned fruits into a zipper bag on the freezer for use in my next smoothie batch.

    I serve my family meats without guilt, but mostly as an accompaniment to a meal, not the main attraction, along with a healthy understanding of and respect for the fact that an animal died in order for us to have it on our plates. Our beliefs are that meat eating is acceptable as long as we are good stewards of it, appreciating it and not thoughtlessly wasting large amounts of it.

    The schools waste a lot because of the way the federal nutrition program is managed. They are required by law to put a certain amount of foods, prescribed by current dietary standards, on each child’s tray. When my elementary kids get school lunch, they complain that they were told they had to put XYZ on their plate when they weren’t hungry for it. My high schooler eats almost all he receives on his school tray because he is in that period of rapid growth and the appetite that goes with it. There is not an easy way to remedy the school situation. For the record though, I’m glad the school provides so much to everyone as one of mine was adopted from foster care and his birth father starved him on purpose at home. School food was his only food and saved his life until the authorities stepped in. Just to say that I don’t hold the school nutrition program in a negative light; in fact, they often do the best they can with what support they are given.

  • Mike M

    Phil: no one expects every famly on the planet to feed themselves. I can’t find where that’s even suggested. What I am saying is that every little bit helps. As the IRS knows, a lot of a little bit is a LOT. Which is why tax rates are higher for the 99%.
    Holly and her husband are more than capable of growing all the food they need on 3 acres. Could an apartment dweller? Obviosly not.

  • http://theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    Phil, not to sound like we are picking on you (please don’t hear that) but you said, ‘but the fact of the matter is for us it’s simply less expensive to by produce from the store rather than grow our own’. I sympathize. To start a garden can be costly. However, the price you pay at the checkout isn’t the only price paid. There are the food miles (the distance food travels) the cost to the environment of the farming practices. When you frame things in a personally economic way where you look for the lowest price then yes maybe the reasoning works. But what we need are more sustainable systems that give back to God’s creation. Starting a garden doesn’t have to be huge. It might be a plant or four. And trust me, as someone who has a good size patch and a fair amount of frut trees etc, there is nothing romantic about the work! :)

    As I said, please don’t hear me picking a fight I am just pushing back a little.

    Peace be with you,

    Mark

  • Phil Miller

    Mark,
    Well, you did say, probably jokingly, that “every household should be required by law to have at least one chicken”. I understand what you’re getting at, and for some people it makes a lot of sense to do things like urban farming and all that. It would be interesting to do a full cost/benefit breakdown of everything.

    Right now, my wife and I are blessed because we live within walking distance to a good local grocery store, and a lot of the time we do walk to the store to pick up whatever we need for that night’s meal. We do go to a bigger store once a week still to get the less perishable stuff for better prices.

    I should also add that my wife works for one of the biggest food companies in the world at the moment, so my perspective on the food industry is maybe a little different than others here. I see that they do more good than bad than providing for people, and there’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t know about.

    In most respects, I think the problem of food waste and the relative inexpensiveness of food goes back to the whole issue of government policies and subsidies surrounding the food industry. Since the Depression, the federal government’s mission in the area of food production has been to ensure a cheap and abundant source of corn (and to some extent wheat) more than anything else. That pretty much affects the price of food throughout the whole system. It’s why food companies make what they make, and it’s why junk food is cheaper compared to “real” food.

    I’m all for educating people about how to eat properly and how to think differently about food. I think that it’s going to take a mixture of grassroots and structural change for things to really be different.

  • Mike M

    @Phil: I am an anarchist at heart so I was being facetious about a law. But thanks for being gracious about it and getting a perspective from the other side is thought-provoking.


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