There is no better time than now to tackle the pervasive issue of food waste in the United States. As so many of our neighbors struggle to put food on their tables during this pandemic, we can all take steps to reduce food waste. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. wastes 30-40% of its food supply annually. A snapshot from 2010 reveals that Americans wasted 133 billion pounds and $161 billion dollars’ worth of food in that year alone. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated that in 2018 Americans generated 63 million tons of food waste, contributing to 24% of landfill materials. Decomposition in landfills contributes significantly to emissions of the potent greenhouse gas, methane – 14.1% of 2017 greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA estimates. This figure does not even include the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the production and transportation of food products that end up in landfills.
Studies by non-profit organizations working on climate change solutions corroborate government studies. Project Drawdown calculated that reducing food waste could decrease worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by 70 gigatons. Crucially for ecosystem health, generating less food waste will have a significant effect on stemming the tide of biodiversity loss. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 70% of biodiversity loss is a result of converting habitat to agricultural land. Cutting food waste would mean that we need less land to feed humanity.
Reducing food waste also helps feed the millions of people who go hungry every year. Organizations such as Feeding America routinely collect donations for food banks that would otherwise end up in landfills. In 2016, over 30 million children qualified for free or reduced-price lunches through the USDA National School Lunch Program.
There are numerous ways that individuals and families can take steps to reduce their food waste. One way is to plan your meals for the week ahead and only buy what you need for those meals. Buying in bulk only saves you money if that food is not going to waste. In addition, ensure that perishable items are stored correctly – for example, keep fruits like bananas and apples separated. Take the time to make the freezer your friend – many items such as breads and meats can be kept frozen until you are ready to use them. If you have the time and ability, excess seasonal produce can be preserved or canned. Finally, get creative with produce past its’ prime – many recipes for soups, casseroles, stir-fries, and smoothies are forgiving if you throw in extra ingredients. The Food: Too Good to Waste Toolkit from the EPA has more excellent suggestions.
Learning the difference between “sell-by”, “use-by”, “best-by”, and expiration dates is a key method to reducing food waste. The “Best By/Best Used By” dates indicate when an item is at peak freshness; it does not indicate that the item is no longer edible once the date has passed. The “Sell By” date simply tells stores at what point they can no longer sell that item. The “Use-By” date is a recommendation for when to consume that item for prime flavor – it is not an expiration date. Sometimes, a consumer will have to do some sleuthing to determine exactly what the dates on food items mean. For example, most egg cartons will have a “packaging” or “P” date, indicating when the eggs were collected and packed. The eggs should be safe to consume for four to five weeks beyond that date.
Now more than ever, it is crucial for our future and the future of our planet to halt the flood of food waste. If you are able, volunteer at or donate items to your local food bank to help out neighbors in need during the pandemic. Become a composting advocate if your community does not already have a composting program. Embrace the wacky-looking produce at your grocery store. Through being creative in our daily lives, we all can make a positive impact for the well-being of our community and the health of our planet.