Living in the United States of Food Waste

The value of foods squandered by American households, supermarkets, restaurants, and other food-service providers last year Photograph by Evan Sung for Bloomberg Businessweek

It’s Sunday morning and I’m rummaging through our refrigerator for items we haven’t finished, tossing everything—cold cuts, cheese, vegetables, fruit, bread, tomato sauce, yogurt, and various unidentifiable leftovers. This is my weekly routine before heading to the supermarket. The stuffed shells prepared a few days earlier—mostly uneaten: out, too.

It’s usually at this time I hear my father’s voice, chiding his kids for being picky eaters. “You’re lucky,” he’d say, “you don’t know what it’s like to go hungry.” Hunger was a constant childhood companion, following him and his brothers and sisters from Europe to America.

So I tuck away a few items to eat later or for lunch tomorrow. Roughly, I calculate $12 worth of food is in the garbage, about 8 percent of our weekly grocery bill. That figure varies every week, of course. What doesn’t is the garbage pail I fill.

I am not alone in my wasteful habits. I live in the United States of Food Waste. On average, my fellow citizens throw away 20 pounds of food each month, which amounts to $2,275 a year for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As a nation, we waste 40 percent of the food we produce, according to estimates from the National Institute of Health. Last year, Americans threw out the equivalent of about $180 billion* worth of food—an 8 percent increase from 2008, the last time the USDA calculated the total value of food loss from households, supermarkets, restaurants, and other food-service providers.

That’s only the last links in the food chain—albeit the largest source of waste in this country. (The USDA doesn’t factor in what farmers leave in the field.) Waste happens at every step further up the supply chain—at the farm, getting crops to market, during processing, and transportation to distribution centers. Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, a chronicle of waste throughout the food system, estimates that in the U.S. $250 billion worth of food is lost throughout the entire supply chain.

All that uneaten food ends up in our landfills—where else? Food scraps are the No. 1 material sent to landfills in the U.S.—more than paper or plastic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Our uneaten refuse accounts for about 14 percent of all municipal solid waste, contributing almost 25 percent of methane emissions and costing roughly $1.3 billion to transport and dump in landfills.

Wasting food is a cultural habit. When I shop, I expect my grocer to have only the freshest, unblemished vegetables and fruits. Supermarket managers do a daily version of my refrigerator-cleansing routine. If you’re in the food-service industry, waste is simply the cost of doing business. The USDA estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and vegetables alone. (“Freegan” movement aside, a growing number of people are living off what supermarkets toss.)

Breaking our wasteful habit requires a cultural adjustment. Food-service giant Sodexo gets workers to help cut waste using a scale connected to a touchscreen terminal developed by LeanPath. Before the food is discarded, a worker places it on the scale and enters the type of food and why it’s being tossed. The terminal then records the date, time, and weight, and sets a value for the item. The data are used to adjust ordering. In tests on seven college campuses, the company cut food waste nearly 50 percent, by dollar and weight, says Christy Cook, senior manager of sustainability. “It creates waste experts [in every kitchen]. It’s a grass-roots program.” So far, Sodexo uses the system in 50 college cafeterias with plans to add more.

Some food advocates believe the government should have a more direct role in cutting waste. “We are just now recognizing that we squander a good amount of our food,” says Bloom. “The next step is getting people to see it as a problem and act.” In a recent report (PDF) for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Dana Gunders calls for the U.S. to conduct a comprehensive study and set national goals for waste reduction, among other efforts.

It’s doubtful the government will go so far as to set national goals, as some countries like Britain have. Elise Golan, director for sustainable development, says there is a “brainstorming” effort under way at the USDA to identify programs it can tweak or start new efforts to address the problem. “It’s on our radar,” she says.

I have to admit it’s on my radar, too. I’m more aware of the apples we haven’t eaten, so I’ll buy fewer or none at all. Have my buying habits radically changed? Not really. I’m still a sucker for the impulse buy. I know it’s pure manipulation, but that sale on Serrano ham (OK, so they post the price by the quarter pound to make it look less expensive), why not get half a pound—even though I’ve already stocked up on other cold cuts. Maybe I won’t throw it out next week.

(*Bloomberg Businessweek updated the USDA food waste numbers using inflation rates for each food category. The USDA will release its latest figures this year.)