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U.S. Consumers Waste Around 40% of Food, Thanks to Overshopping and Freshness Labels

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In the U.S., about a third of all food produced is never eaten.  Yet, one in eight Americans struggle to put food on the table. And it's not just the leftovers in the back of the refrigerator; it happens at every point along the supply chain. We'll hear about a growing anti-waste movement and delve into the environmental consequences of food waste as well possible solutions that may help address issues of scarcity. 


Mass-production, infrastructure, and a culture of excess contribute to food waste in the United States. If ranked as a country, Steven Finn of UPenn says, food waste would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the U.S. and China. Americans have increased their food waste from around 20 percent in the 1970's to 40 percent currently, or about $165 billion dollars a year. 
JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate for the Food & Agriculture program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says food waste has increased since the 70s due partly to lifestyle changes.

"For many of us, for instance, you may be cooking for kids who have different schedules every day, you might be cooking multiple meals." She also says a desire to get a good deal causes overbuying at the grocery store. "We just may not be able to use it fast enough." 

Finn adds that our culture has transitioned from thriftiness to excess, where marketing and presentation overshadow nutrition and necessity. "In the war years, there was little waste of food because we couldn't afford to do was really highly valued and our actions reflected that. We very quickly transitioned to this culture of abundance. Food is all around us, we are surrounded by it in big displays, perfect displays." 

Another contributor to food waste is freshness, or "best buy" labels. These labels, says Finn, are created by manufacturers to tell grocery stores when food is at peak freshness, and each manufacturer has a unique way of determining when food has spoiled. 

Berkenkamp encourages consumers to use their own judgment when determining if food is safe to eat. "As many of us have stepped back from cooking," she says, "we have lost a sense of when we are able to judge if something is good to eat or not." She also adds that manufacturers do not account for how food is consumed in the home. For example, if a family leaves a carton of milk on the table every night at dinner, it might spoil faster than if it was kept in the fridge most of the time. 

Infrastructure in the United States discourages frequent shopping and a small stock of food in the house. In Europe, Finn says, "You shop for bread in the morning and it might not be there in the shop more frequently." In the U.S., consumers might have to drive greater distances to get their groceries, and therefore not shop as frequently, or they might be enticed by pre-packaged, bulk items that are not readily available in Europe. 

Exchange listener, Gisela, who is a famine survivor, says that her family goes to apple farms to pick up dropped apples for a reduced price, but this year, one farm told her that these apples were no longer available for sale. "It is so much more expensive when you pick them, " she says, and that she thinks farmers and producers need to consider collecting dropped produce before it rots and using it to reduce waste. 

Some large scale companies trying to reduce food waste. Eric Blom, communications manager of Hannaford Supermarkets, says that Hannaford has made big changes to reduce the amount of food their grocery stores toss out. "We saw a 50 percent increase of the amount of food we donated," he says.

Likewise, Hannaford has also been experimenting with selling "ugly produce," or food that does not have a conventional look, for a reduced price. Stores in Albany, New York, work with farmers to collect these often-tossed items, and sell them to consumers. 

"Retailers have a responsibility to be reducing as much waste as we possibly can," Blom says.

So what can consumers do to reduce their waste? Berkenkamp says that only 5 percent of Americans compost their own food waste, and that this process reduces the amount of food that goes into landfills, where it decomposes and releases methane. By composting your own food, Finn says, you expose the food to oxygen, which turns it into organic material that may be used for fertilization. 

Berkenkamp also encourages shoppers to make a list before they go to the store, to avoid purchasing food they already have, or overbuying. "When we shop, we are kind of aspirational shoppers. Something very simple like going to the grocery store with a shopping list...those are really easy steps we can all take that don't take a long time and help us save money too." 

And if that seems like too much work, Exchange listener Grace emailed with another suggestion: "When I was growing up, we would offer questionable food to the cat. If he turned away, we would toss it, but if he wanted to eat it, we would eat it." 

The NRDC's new ad campaign features tips for reducing food waste, and this video you may have seen on TV:

Find out more about the NRDC's Save the Food campaign that helps consumers waste less food on Thanksgiving. 

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