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Waste not, want not

CHERYL TEVIS 02/24/2014 @ 10:34am Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

As a wife and mother, I typically face two divergent household food-management issues. When I open the refrigerator door, I either don’t have the necessary ingredients to make the meal that I’ve planned, or I have so many meal leftovers that some go to waste.

Magnify the two situations on a national scale. First, one in six Americans today is considered food insecure, according to USDA estimates. Second, 40% of U.S. food isn’t consumed; it’s thrown out. That’s $165 billion worth of food annually. The problem is growing; we waste 50% more food per person today than in the mid-1970s.

This doubling of food waste may stem from food label expiration dates, which are based more on food quality than on food safety. A report by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans confuse the “sell by” dates used by food retailers with the expiration dates. Until industry takes steps to correct the problem, consumers need to supersize their own common sense.

Today, food waste is the single largest type of waste in U.S. landfills. This causes a serious environmental problem: Decaying food produces methane, which contributes to greenhouse gases.

Wasted food is also a waste of precious natural resources, such as water and soil, used to grow our food. A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report estimates that 28% of the land in global agriculture and three times the volume of water in Lake Geneva are being used to grow food that’s never eaten. If food waste were a country, it would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, following China and the U.S.

There’s enough blame to go around. A huge amount of food is wasted at institutions: schools, hospitals, and cafeterias. Restaurants that serve oversize portions of food also play a key role.

Some waste originates at the farm level, where fresh produce isn’t harvested because of market conditions or logistics.

In the Central Valley of California, for instance, food banks don’t have adequate liability insurance to allow employees to pick unharvested fruit from fields.

Strict standards imposed on the appearance of fresh food by grocery stores and manufacturers are a contributing factor.

Last, but not least, individual shoppers also demand an unrealistic level of perfection in the appearance of food.

Fortunately, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act passed in 1996 protects businesses from any liability associated with illness from consuming donated food. Here are just two examples of an expanding number of efforts under way:

  • The Food Recovery Network gathers food at 23 colleges and universities across the U.S.
  • Boulder Food Rescue in Colorado collects produce and packaged goods from grocers for use at shelters, housing projects, and at-risk community outlets.
Retailers also are responding. Walmart and Feeding America are partnering to deliver fresh, slightly imperfect food.

Last April, the USDA and EPA announced the U.S. Food Waste Challenge. The two agencies have expanded a small pilot consumer household food waste project called Food: Too Good to Waste into a national campaign. The aim is to attract 400 partner organizations by 2015 to:

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