Food Waste: A Growing Problem for a Growing World

It’s not pretty, or glamorous, or exciting, but it’s real and it’s a problem: food waste. Did you know that 25-40% of food in America is wasted (Grocery Manufacturers Association)? Food makes up the majority of solid waste in landfills. That’s right, not plastic or paper, FOOD. How do we solve this problem, especially considering the population is growing exponentially and many are starving?

How do we convince people to eat their leftovers? Or remember to eat the veggies in the back of the fridge? What about consuming food that isn’t “perfect?” Excess production and trimmings in food manufacturing facilities also contribute to waste. Trust me, I’m not perfect and I have my fair share of leftovers that don’t get eaten. However, I hope to bring awareness to this issue and plant the seed of concern in the back of your mind. Maybe you’ll even pause before throwing out those old bananas on trash day. If you’re looking for a New Years’ resolution, or just hoping to make an impact this year, consider cutting back on your food waste.  

Roughly 31% of food in America is wasted, but you can help.

How does my trash affect the planet?

The most important thing to understand when it comes to food waste is that you’re not only wasting the food immediately in front of you. Think of all the resources that went into making that food, even if it’s just a piece of fruit. Water was used to hydrate the plant and fertilizer or manure was used to help it grow. Workers were paid to harvest the fruit and ensure it is safe to eat. Fuel was used to transport the fruit to your local supermarket and energy was used to keep the lights shining at the store.

In terms of animal products, there is so much more to consider. Not only did the animal lose its life to feed us, but the food, water, and resources consumed by the animal were also wasted.

Quick Facts: USA

1. 133 BILLION pounds of food, that’s $161 billion, was wasted in 2010

2. 141 TRILLION calories were left uneaten in 2010, alone

3. 50 million Americans in the US are food insecure

4. Food makes up over 20% by weight of solid material in landfills and produces the greenhouse gas methane

5. Fruits and vegetables are the most wasted food item

USDA Agricultural Research Service
moldy fruit
Moldy fruit forgotten in the refrigertor

What are the benefits of reducing food waste?

  1. Reducing waste means less methane released into the atmosphere from rotting food in landfills
  2. Excess food can be used to feed the hungry
  3. Increased efficiency of the food system could lead to cost reduction

What drives food waste?

It can be hard to quantify loss. Manufacturers must account for any losses or donations when producing product so they can trace 100% of their material in case a recall is needed. Retail outlets keep track of their sales and losses. Farmers must be able to trace product throughout the supply chain. So this gives us a pretty good idea of how much is wasted during harvesting and production, but how do we know how much is lost at the consumer level? That’s tougher.

The chart shows where food loss typically occurs, per a study performed in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It found that the majority of waste occurs at the consumer level.

In my opinion, a large part of the problem at the consumer level is lack of awareness. Because food prices are relatively cheap in the US and make up a small portion of our income, as compared to other countries, many don’t notice how much is wasted and how many dollars are actually being thrown away.

The causes of food waste are many, and shared by all:

Source: University of Minnesota Food Policy Research Center

What are the challenges?

There are many roadblocks standing in the way of cutting back on waste. To change the behaviors and expectations of consumers is no easy task. Large portion sizes have become the norm for many. Accepting ugly produce will also require a complete change in mindset for consumers.

One major hurdle, however, is food safety and liability. If manufacturers or even consumers want to donate unused food, whose fault is it if someone on the receiving end gets sick? How we do we guarantee a safe supply chain in which there was no tampering or temperature abuse? There are still many challenges ahead of us to ensure safety and reduce waste.

So, what can I do to help?

There are many steps we can all take to reduce our personal footprint of food waste.

Understanding food dating systems can make a big difference. The most important thing to understand is that dating is not required by law and is an indicator of quality ONLY, not food safety (USDA).

When should I throw it out?

Manufacturers use knowledge of food chemistry, ingredients, food safety, and product quality to determine these dates. They may also perform shelf-life studies which mimic extreme conditions in a shorter time period. Sensory scientists often perform panels to compare products to control at different points in the timeline.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what you may see on food packaging and what it actually means:

  • Use By: Last date for best quality
  • Best By/Best Before: Product is guaranteed for best quality before this date
  • Sell By: The last date a store should display the product for best quality

For more info on food dating, please read up here!

Quality and food safety are NOT the same. Pathogenic bacteria do not cause spoilage. Just because a food is stale or faded in color does NOT mean it isn’t safe. Often foods that are infected by pathogens show no obvious signs that the food is no longer safe; taste, appearance, and smell are not altered by pathogens. However, smell and slime produced by spoilage microorganisms  are a good indicator that the food should be discarded. Use your senses and your judgement when considering food safety. Also remember who is most at risk: YOPI’s – Young, old, pregnant, and immunocompromised. If you or your guest fall into one of these categories is may be best to play it safe.

Ummm, so how do we know its safe to eat anything?! Well, first and foremost, always follow proper food safety procedures. Time and temperature are critical when it comes to food. Keep hot foods hot, and cold foods cold. As a rule of thumb, most leftovers are safe for 3-4 days when handled properly and stored at appropriate temperatures, <40 F. For a more comprehensive list of foods, consult this reference chart from the USDA.

Did you know? Even if food is past its date, it can still be donated, as long as it is in good condition and has been properly stored.

For more tips and a deeper understanding of food safety, check out this helpful post!

How can we change the way we think about our food?

Maybe the issue of food waste is new to you, or maybe you’re already aware of the problems we face. Either way, what can you do as an individual to make an impact? It can be hard, but here are some ideas to help you get started.

  1. Get creative! Think of new recipes you can develop to use up any old food you’ve got lying around. Maybe you can make a smoothie, fruit salad, ham sandwich, or even an omelet.
  2. Try planning your meals for the week before you go to the grocery store.  By buying only what you need, it’s easy to waste less. You can always make a second trip to the grocery store, if needed. (Of course, depending on where you live and your proximity to the store, this may or may not be easy).
  3. Consider buying canned or frozen produce, especially if it’s something you don’t use much. While some may believe these products are inferior to fresh produce, remember these are technological advances that have been made to help feed us through winter or when there’s little time to prepare food. Frozen produce is often equal, or even superior, in terms of nutrition as compared to fresh produce.
  4. Pick up the ugly carrot. Most of us are trained to choose the freshest, brightest produce we can find. But remember that nature isn’t perfect. Vegetables and fruits grow in all different shapes and sizes, and it doesn’t mean it’s not healthy or tasty just because it’s a little crooked. By choosing product that is often picked over by others, you can help reduce some of the waste at the grocery store.
  5. Plan on re-purposing your leftovers for lunch tomorrow. Make it a habit to finish your leftovers as soon as possible so you don’t forget about them and push them to the back of the fridge.

These are just a few ideas I have come up with in my quest for reducing waste. Again, I know it’s hard. (Truth: I don’t love leftovers, but I’m learning). Just keeping these facts and ideas in the back of your mind might help you make little changes, that end up being life-long habits. 2019 is the year to start!

Love Letter to Food

This video from the University of Minnesota Food Policy Research Center and Minute Earth really puts it in perspective.

Got any additional ideas for reducing food waste? Chime in by posting you comment below 👇🏼


Buzby, JC, Well, HF, Hyman, J. 2014. The estimated amount, value, and calories of postharvest food losses at the retail and consumer level in the United States. USDA Economic Research Service.

Grocery Manufacturers Association. 2013. About Food Waste. Food Waste Reduction Alliance. Retrieved 30 December 2018.

Reich, AH, Foley, JA. 2014. Food loss and waste in the US: The science behind the supply chain. Policy Summaries and Analyses.
University of Minnesota. Retrieved 29 December 2018.

USDA Food Safety Inspection Service. 2016. Food product dating. Retrieved 30 December 2018.

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