Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Every day, people dispose of expired foods. Blemished fruits and vegetables are thrown away; restaurants serve oversized portions that end up in the trash; farmers are forced to dispose of produce that isn’t considered perfect, and the list of opportunities for food waste continues. Nearly 40% of the United States’ food supply is wasted. Yet, about one in eight Americans struggle to put food on the table.
Food waste and food loss are commonly used terms that cause the same problems. However, food loss generally applies to food lost in the earlier stages of food production, while food waste typically refers to food wasted even though it may still be adequate for human consumption.
In lower-income countries, food loss occurs more in the earlier stages of the supply chain. Food loss is mostly due to the limitations of harvesting technology that cause damaged produce and fewer harvests. However, in higher-income countries like the U.S., most of the blame for food waste falls to consumer habits in their homes. The largest contributor of that being confusion over expiration labels. Up to 90% of Americans waste food due to the misinterpretation of food labels.
Date labels commonly include “best before,” “sell by,” and “use by,” which encourage consumers to throw away perfectly edible food from their refrigerators and pantries regularly. These labels generally are not completely regulated by the government, which causes confusion in consumers on what the manufacturers are suggesting as safe to eat. “Best before” labels are arbitrarily set guesses by the manufacturer for how long the food will remain in optimum quality while “use by” generally indicates the product’s expiration date.
While they are mainly influenced by consumer behavior, supermarkets are also to blame for food waste due to rigorous standards for foods that deem many perfectly edible foods unfit to sell.
Additionally, high customer expectations for fully-stocked shelves cause stores to fill their shelves with unnecessary amounts of food. The store ends up having to dispose of the surplus left by products reaching their expiration dates on the shelf and extra food customers did not purchase. Supermarkets throw away 43 billion pounds of food every year and up to 50% of produce is thrown out for this reason alone. Furthermore, “buy one, get one free” deals and “all you can eat” buffets, also cause consumers to buy more food than they can eat.
With the rise of globalized food supply, the supply chain gets longer, leaving more opportunities for food to be lost in the earlier stages of production. Countless times, food doesn’t leave the farm. Farmers plant to overcompensate for adverse weather, but end up with an unnecessary surplus of food that is thrown away after favorable conditions. The retailer’s high standard for appearance will also lead to produce not even leaving the farm. Furthermore, food is also lost after harvest, processing, handling, storage, and transportation.
Nevertheless, the food that the U.S. wastes could be used to feed every starving person in the country. However, the repercussions of food waste go farther than that. Wasted food is the largest contributor to landfills, which generate methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Furthermore, multiple resources are wasted in food production that could be used for other things. Water that can be used for irrigation is wasted, yet freshwater is one of the most precious resources on the planet and 70% of it contributes to agriculture. 28% of the world’s land, which can be used for plating, is used for food that is ultimately wasted or lost. Additionally, fuel, which can be used for transportation, and physical labor are wasted when food is thrown away.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration signed a joint agency agreement in October 2018 called the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative. The initiative aimed to improve coordination across federal agencies in order to better educate Americans on the importance of reducing food waste.
As part of this initiative, the agencies issued the FY 2019-2020 Federal Interagency Strategy in April of last year that prioritizes their efforts to reach their goal of reducing food loss and food waste in the U.S. by 50% by 2030. The six priority areas include improving interagency coordination, increasing consumer education, improving coordination on food waste measurement, clarifying food safety, date labels, and food donations, collaborating with the private sector, and reducing food waste in federal facilities. Informing consumers on date labeling and how long food is safe to eat will have a significant impact on reducing food waste on its own. Furthermore, buying locally would create shorter supply chains, lessening the opportunities for loss and waste. Since much of the food waste occurs in homes, individuals have a large role in food waste.
Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on the importance of reducing food waste?
“Food waste is a major problem in today’s society and one that is extremely harmful to the environment. One of the saddest aspects of this problem is that it is easily avoidable, but many do not take the certain steps needed to ensure limited food waste.” Jay Kannan, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“In the U.S. alone, billions of pounds of food is thrown away each month. To some, it may seem that getting rid of excess food, or buying more than necessary is normal, or no big deal. But there are millions of people living paycheck to paycheck that need every pound of food they can get. Now this wasted food is more valuable than some thought. This shows the great economic and wage gap that is in America, and how one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Tyler Bush, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“Food waste is a very severe problem in today’s society. Many households will typically throw away lots of untouched food for various reasons, and this wasted food can add up, leading to detrimental effects such as loss of resources and climate change. On a scale of one to ten, I would say its extremity is 11, making it something that should be addressed as soon as possible.” Sam Chao, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD