How can we improve the environment, save money, and more effectively address food insecurity issues? One approach within the larger sustainability movement involves looking more closely at the issue of food waste.
According to the U.S. EPA, in 2014 more than 38 million tons of food waste was generated, with only 5.1% being diverted from landfills and incinerators through composting efforts. The EPA estimates more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our waste streams, accounting for 21.6% of our discarded solid waste.
According to the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), an international environmental advocacy group, “Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States.” When we consider the large amount of natural resources used for food production it is troubling that 40% of food in the U.S. goes uneaten. The uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions, posing negative effects on the environment. However, food waste is not only an environmental concern, but also a social and economic issue.
The economic effects of food waste are just as startling. Americans throw away the equivalent of $165 billion worth of food each year. In addition to food waste occurring at the consumer level, 10% of the total food supply at the retail level enters the solid waste stream. The USDA estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and vegetables alone, in addition to the baked goods, meat, seafood, and ready-made foods that go unsold. These items can easily be recovered from the waste stream by donating them to local food banks and food pantries, and retailers can receive tax benefits for doing so.
Aside from economic and environmental benefits of reducing food waste, recovering or diverting edible food from the waste stream could help to address the larger social issue of food insecurity in the U.S. In 2015, 12.7% of U.S. households (15.8 million households) were food insecure (USDA ERS), and 6.6% of households in Ohio were found to have “very low food security,” defined by the USDA as households in which “normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times during the year because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” Reducing food losses by just 15% recovers enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year, which could have a profound impact when we consider that one in six Americans lacks a secure supply of food.