A Natural Resources Defense Council study found that Americans annually throw out up to 25 percent of the food they buy. Fresh fruits and vegetables made up the most food waste in terms of tonnage. What causes this problem before and after food reaches our plates?
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report, when it comes to food waste, “the cost estimate for the average family of four is $1,365 to $2,275 annually.” The exact figures on what contributes to American food waste were unavailable, but “in the United Kingdom, about two-thirds of household waste is due to food spoilage from not being used on-time; whereas, the other one-third is caused by people cooking or serving too much.”
Reducing the amount of food we waste would save a considerable amount of money every year. While much food waste occurs before we even make it to the grocery store, we still have options available to us to maximize our value.
“The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the FAO, argues that the world throws away almost three trillion pounds of food per year,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “According to Oxfam International, an international confederation of charitable organizations focused on the alleviation of global poverty, this amounts to more than enough to feed every hungry person on the planet.”
Dr. Crittenden said that different nations waste food in different ways. In developing nations, lack of refrigeration for storage and an absence of high-quality roads and transportation cause much of the waste.
“In the post-industrialized West, like here in the United States, the issues arise when retailers don’t purchase produce that’s aesthetically appealing, meaning that it simply gets thrown away before it ever even gets loaded onto trucks to sell,” she said. “In addition, retailers often buy and produce more food than they sell and serve, so much of it ends up in the trash.”
According to Dr. Crittenden, the EPA has several suggestions on how to cut down on food waste starting just before we head to the supermarket, and they’re surprisingly simple.
“The first tip that they offer is to make lists,” she said. “Making lists of what meals you plan to prepare in a week and what ingredients you need to do so can automatically reduce the amount of food waste that your family generates.”
“Another tip is to properly store your fruits and veggies so that they last longer—they even suggest freezing or canning surplus. Speaking of the freezer, they encourage us to get to know our freezer better. Many foods can be frozen and thawed, like bread, sliced fruit, or meat.”
Other suggestions include having a leftovers night each week at your house, freezing perishables for later use, and even just keeping track of the amount of food you throw away to become better aware of wasteful habits.
Asking about portion sizes while out at a restaurant may raise an eyebrow from a friend or two, but the knowledge can save you from an unpleasant surprise when your plate arrives. Many people find that certain foods don’t reheat well, so getting to know portion sizes may eliminate the familiar situation of leaving that to-go box in your fridge for a week before just throwing it away.
Throwing out food is akin to throwing out money, and more of it is going out to the curb than we think. Even slightly changing our habits can fatten our wallets instead of our trash bags.
Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.