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The Ugly Truth About Food Waste in America


Up next, some food for thought as you chomp your Thanksgiving leftovers. Recycling paper and plastic, as you know, is an effective way to save money and energy. So why not recycle all the uneaten food that goes to waste? And there is an awful lot of it. Forty percent of the food in the U.S. today goes uneaten, which means Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion worth of food each year. But that's not all. Food waste, as it decays in landfills, also produces methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas.

So what can we do to cut back on food waste? Dana Gunders is a food and agriculture project scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. She's also author of an NRDC report published last month called "Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DANA GUNDERS: Great to be here. Thank you.

FLATOW: Jonathan Bloom is author of and "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It)." He's joining us from Durham, North Carolina. Welcome to the program.

JONATHAN BLOOM: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: We won't be taking your calls today, but you can learn more about our topic today by going to

Well, that is a tremendous amount of food wasted. I don't think anybody really understands, Dana, that there's this much wastage going on.

GUNDERS: It's true. It's - it was surprising to me, and I think it's as surprising to most people who hear it, that we are throwing away just mountains of food.

FLATOW: Has this increased over the years, or has this remained constant?

GUNDERS: No. We've seen it increase quite a bit. The estimate is that it's about 50 percent more food that's wasted today per person than in the mid-'70s.

FLATOW: Wow. We have to take a break. When we come back, we'll talk lots more about wasted food with my guests, Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Jonathan Bloom, author of


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the shocking amount of food we waste in the U.S. Nearly half of it going into the trash and what effect that has on our environment. Our guests are Dana Gunders, a food and agriculture project scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. She's also author of an NRDC report called "Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill." Jonathan Bloom is author of and "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It)."

Jonathan Bloom, do people know that they're throwing out good food? Or do they think, oh, it looks a little brown or it's this, I should just throw it out anyhow?

BLOOM: No. We often don't tend to realize that we're throwing away perfectly edible food, especially when we're paying attention to those expiration dates and when we're thinking of those as the gospel truth, we're going to be throwing away a whole lot of good food. I think we have lost some of those traditional food ways, so we might not know when something's good or not. And the prevailing attitude tends to be when in doubt, throw it out.

FLATOW: When in doubt, throw it out, even though...

BLOOM: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...the expiration date is a little conservative?

BLOOM: Oh, yeah. There's a lot of wiggle room built in to those expiration dates, and in fact, most of them actually speak to food quality, not necessarily food safety.

FLATOW: Well, let's talk about some of the negative impacts of food waste. What are the main things that we should be concerned about?

BLOOM: Well, you mentioned the methane emissions at the top of the show when we do send food to the landfill. But more important than that are the resources that go into growing that food that then go for naught when we don't consume them.

So if - in particular, I'm thinking about the tremendous amount of petroleum that goes into all steps of the food chain, and the water usage that is increasingly common and is an increasingly scarce resource as our planet warms, and in addition the land, the soil fertility that we are just squandering by growing fence row to fence row.

FLATOW: Dana Gunders, want to add anything to that?

GUNDERS: Yeah. Well, Jonathan's absolutely right. I mean, over half the land area in the U.S. is dedicated to food production, and over 80 percent of the water that we consume goes into growing our - producing our food. So when we throw out, say, half a hamburger, according to an estimate by the Water Footprint Network, that's equivalent to taking over an hour shower, in the water use that was required for that half hamburger you just tossed.

FLATOW: An hour?

BLOOM: And actually, I have another image for you in terms of water use, in terms of the water embedded in the food that we throw out. Well, annually, we are wasting the equivalent of two times the volume of Crater Lake...


BLOOM: ...through the food that we're not using.

FLATOW: Wow. OK. So what - let's talk about some of the things we can do as individuals, Dana Gunders, to reduce the amount of food waste. What should we do?

GUNDERS: Sure. Well, I think, you know, we can start in our own refrigerators and our freezers. Oftentimes, people don't think that when something's about to go bad and they, at the last minute, decide to go out to dinner, they can just throw their leftovers into their freezer. We can freeze almost anything.

Really, learning when food goes bad, as Jonathan was mentioning, those expiration dates are just suggestions for peak quality. Very few of them are actually indications that the food has gone bad. So learning more about those and planning better and really thinking about what you're going to eat, and when you see that, you know, exciting promotion at the store, stop and think: Am I really going to get around to eating that this week?

FLATOW: There are people who like to compost their food. How different is composting in terms of being a better way than allowing it into the landfill? Are they not equivalent, Jonathan?

BLOOM: Well, composting is certainly a positive use of the food waste that we do create. And let's face it, we're always going to have some food waste. But more important than that is trying to actually reduce the amount of waste that's created, and so it's kind of like that "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra.

FLATOW: Right.

BLOOM: Well, you know, there's a reason that reduce is the first item mentioned. But certainly, it's better than sending it to a landfill.


BLOOM: We are getting those nutrients back into the soil and essentially recycling them. So it's definitely a positive way of reusing the resources in our food.

FLATOW: Here's a tweet from Jenna Harrison(ph). It says: Schools throw away huge amounts of food. How much - now, let me expand that. How much institutional food is wasted that could be saved? You know, hospitals, schools, other place - cafeterias, things like that.

BLOOM: Oh, yeah. Well, there's a tremendous amount of waste in that institutional setting. And in some cases, it's unavoidable, when, let's say, you have to serve a certain number of calories to patients or school kids. But there are ways around it. And the more choice people have in their food service, the less waste there is.

FLATOW: I guess for some - for health reasons, you just can't recycle - I mean, no one's going to eat that food again. It's just going to go to waste.

BLOOM: Yeah. Well, I have heard stories at, say, the elementary school level where you'll have a table set up and people could put food that they're not going to eat onto that table, and it's kind of like a leave one, take one situation. And, I mean, the sad thing is when you go into most any school in America, you look in the trashcan and you see untouched fruits and unopened cartons of milk, and those are certainly items that other people could be eating. There are some legal hurdles if you're going to be distributing it elsewhere, but certainly, within that cafeteria, we can all share and reduce some of the waste that's created.

FLATOW: Can we prevent, you know, on a city or municipal or state level, can we prevent the food from - the wasted food from getting into the landfills in the first place?

BLOOM: Oh, certainly. There's a couple of ways you can do it. Curbside composting is already happening in San Francisco, Seattle and a couple other municipalities. And it's not all that difficult. It's simply asking people to take one more step in addition to recycling, to just separate out their food waste. And there's a real opportunity for cities and towns to save money. Instead of paying to send it off to a landfill somewhere, you can actually get a reusable product out of it and save money on your parks and rec, having to purchase soil amendment.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is there any engineering challenges to creating a new system to deal with all these wastes?

BLOOM: Well, a lot of places aren't necessarily doing it themselves - a lot of cities, that is. They're usually sending it off to composting facilities. But there's a real opportunity there for municipalities to create their own. You know, they would save a whole bunch on actually having to ship it somewhere.

But even more than composting, I love to see an increase in anaerobic digestion, and that's basically just harnessing that methane gas to create energy. So you hear a lot about waste-to-energy plants, which is kind of a euphemism in that they're just burning stuff. But - and they're not all that efficient at capturing the energy. But anaerobic digestion is a much better use of that food waste and, you know, we've put all those resources into producing our food. Why not treat our food waste as, in fact, another resource?

FLATOW: Oh. So instead of a landfill, you engineer this giant building where you throw the stuff into it, it gets digested, and out comes methane that you're going to use later.

BLOOM: Yeah. You can use it to power a building's heating or cooling system. You can turn it into electricity and send it to the grid. There's a whole bunch of uses. And right now, we are actually only recycling 3 percent of the food waste we do create. So, you know, if we're going to be wasting food as much as we are - which hopefully will cease and reduce. But if we are going to have as much waste as we do, you might as well do something with it.

FLATOW: Now, Dana Gunders, any thoughts on that?

GUNDERS: Yeah. I certainly think that composting or anaerobic digestion are both great uses of the waste. But I would really love to see us focusing more on how do we streamline our food, you know, system so that we don't generate nearly as much waste as we do currently.

FLATOW: In other words, when you go shopping, that's where the waste starts.

GUNDERS: Well, it actually starts long before you go shopping. You know, it starts on our farms, where sometimes fresh produce doesn't even get harvested because of market dynamics and pricing. Farmers, when the price is too low, are not able to afford to harvest their crops because they won't make up the difference in price.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And when you go to the supermarket, if you - how many of us - we all have done this. We buy stuff and we never take it out of the package, and it goes bad in the refrigerator. We're not planning well.

GUNDERS: It's true. I think, you know, more frequent shopping can help. Actually planning your meals - there are some great resources out there that help you plan a week of meals. And, you know, if one recipe requires cilantro at the beginning of the week, you use another recipe that requires cilantro three days later. So that whole bunch you had to buy.

FLATOW: And if you buy that head of lettuce and the outside leaves are brown, don't throw out the whole head. Just get rid of that - those rotting leaves, and the inside's still good.

BLOOM: Yeah. And when you get rid of them, of course, you're composting them, not throwing them away. But, yeah, no, there's a tremendous amount of opportunity there to use what you have. There's this idea of eating down your fridge. And before you go shopping, you're looking and seeing what you have on hand. And chances are, as we heard earlier, there's going to be a whole bunch of produce that we bought last week with the best of intentions of cooking a healthy meal. And then, as most people do, you get a little busy and that stuff kind of gets pushed off and it's tomorrow. OK. And then it's the next day. And then, you know, that day never comes before the food ends up squishy and a different color.

FLATOW: But what...

GUNDERS: And I'd just like to point out that...


GUNDERS: ...this, you know, it also speaks straight to our pocketbooks. It's - we not doing the accounting, typically, but we're spending money on that head of lettuce or, you know, that gallon of milk. And when you're not using it all, that's good money you're throwing in the trash. And there's some great resources out there. A cookbook came out recently called "The Frugal Foodie," you know, and so this is really about using your food budget as best as you can.

FLATOW: What about feeding, you know, livestock with waste food that we normally would throw away? Won't they eat it?

GUNDERS: Sure, it will.

BLOOM: Yeah. That's a great use for it, sure.

FLATOW: But we don't have - do we have a mechanism for getting, you know, recycling that kind of stuff?

GUNDERS: If you have backyard chickens, that sure helps...


GUNDERS: ...which we're seeing more of in cities these days. But - and, you know, back - farmers do that often. But unfortunately, a lot of the food that's going to animal feed is produce, you know, peaches and other produce that is just slightly, you know, maybe misshapen or has a little bit of a scar on it and are really perfectly edible. And I think, you know, a higher or better use of this for that to be going to human food. And if we didn't have such strict standards in our grocery stores and that we are using to choose our produce, we would be reducing waste in the system as well.

BLOOM: Yeah. And strict standards in - at the store level and for manufacturers, but I do think that we as individuals should share some of the blame. And we're demanding that level of perfection in our food, and it's reached a point where we care about the appearance more than the food item's taste. And so that desire for that beautiful apple means that along the way, throughout that food chain, countless apples are not ending up at the store.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Let's go to Parker in Charlotte. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PARKER: Hey, how it's going? I just want - I really love your show, so I'm glad to be able to finally actually be on the air. But I just wanted to mention, I worked in the restaurant industry for just about the last five years in my life. And something - I've worked at different restaurants and something I realized out of that industry is that a lot of time you get huge amounts of waste specifically from the restaurant themselves. And, you know, I - a lot of the time I've worked at these restaurants, and I've mentioned to them, hey, can, you know, can we take this waste? Can we do something with it? And I've just - all of them tend to say that it's a huge - it's a legal hurdle. I think, Dana, you may have mentioned that earlier on. It's a huge legal hurdle. Is there anything that we can do to overcome sort of that specific legal hurdle that would reduce - to reduce the waste of food that can't be immediately distributed?

GUNDERS: You know, there's a little bit of misperception out there. So there is a law called the Good Samaritan Act that does protect businesses that donate food from any kind of liability associated with someone getting sick, for instance, from eating that food. And many businesses just aren't aware of that. So part of it is awareness. And, you know, they can't donate the food that's out there once it's served. But anything in the back room can be donated actually.

FLATOW: All right. Aren't there companies like City Harvest that go around to restaurants and get their food and bring them and give it to people who can't afford to eat?

BLOOM: Yeah. There's a whole network of food recovery operations. Pretty much every major city has one. But when I've talked to these folks and gone around with them, and they say they're just recovering a fraction of the available food out there.

FLATOW: And so are you optimistic that this is - anything is going to change? Or are we just going to muddle through on it?

BLOOM: I think if the price of food continues to rise, that will have a real impact on how we approach our food. I think that's one silver lining to the rising cost of food. We might be less wasteful with it. And certainly, as the planet grows, we're going to have to become more efficient with the food we have. You don't see that on the day-to-day level, but when you're speaking globally, you know, you think about the estimates for 2050 with about 9 billion people, maybe even more who are going to be around, you know, when we talk about how we feed all those people, the conversation immediately turns to increased production. But from my standpoint, it seems like we should focus on efficiency before we think about growing more food.

FLATOW: Yeah. Dana Gunders, last words?

GUNDERS: Yeah. Well, I agree with Jonathan that, you know, I think this is an ideal time to be talking about this. We're in the midst of a drought and expecting to see rising food prices. We're also at a time when one in six Americans are, you know, what we consider food insecure and, you know, rising concerns over obesity and portion sizes as you were discussing in your last segment. And all of those tie in really well to looking at the food waste question and really taking another look at what we're buying, what we're actually eating, and how our whole food system works.

FLATOW: Well, thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

BLOOM: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

GUNDERS: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Dana Gunders is a food and agriculture project scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. She is also the author of an NRDC report published last month called "Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill." Jonathan Bloom is author of and "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It.)"

If you want to know more about wasted food and the topics on our program and what we're talking today, you can go to our website,, and we have links there to all kinds of stuff that we're talking about today. So it won't be wasted, so to speak, on you as a listener. Have a great and safe holiday weekend. I'm Ira Flatow in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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