In Iowa, a farmer is unable to find a market for his crops, forcing him to let them rot in the field. In Florida, a grocery store downsizes a product order at the last minute, leaving producers with goods that can’t be sold. In Oregon, a restaurant promotes its extra-large portions in order to attract guests but ends up throwing away an estimated 10% of purchases. These scenarios highlight just some of the food waste in the United States.
Here’s why that’s a problem and what you can do about it.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans generated more than 37 million tons of food waste in 2013, constituting 21% of discarded municipal solid waste. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that Americans wasted more than one-third of the vegetables and fruit they bought in 2010.
Globally, food waste stats are staggering: One-third of the world’s food is lost or wasted, according to estimates calculated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (2011). The direct economic cost of world food waste of agricultural products alone is about $750 billion.
The direct economic cost of world food waste of agricultural products alone is about $750 billion.
According to the EPA, when food is thrown away, the resources used to produce it, like water, gasoline, energy, labor, pesticides, land and fertilizers, are also wasted. Food waste also accounts for the largest component of disposed U.S. municipal solid waste and is a significant portion of U.S. methane emissions (landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the United States).
For retailers and foodservice operators, the issue presents an opportunity not only to help the environment and people in their communities, but also improve their bottom lines by lowering costs associated with over purchasing, food disposal and inefficiencies. Additionally, organizations may be able to claim tax benefits for donating healthy, safe food to hungry people. (The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act may protect food donors from legal liability in certain circumstances.)
It’s estimated that the world’s population will grow by 2 billion people to reach 9 billion by 2050. The staggering numbers have people across the food industry strategizing how to feed that many people. And although increased food production is part of the solution, reducing food waste is also key to future food access. In September 2015, the EPA and USDA announced the United States’ first national food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030.
The EPA developed the Food Recovery Hierarchy to help restaurants and other foodservice providers prevent and divert wasted food. Each tier of the hierarchy focuses on different management strategies, beginning with source reduction; down through feeding hungry people, feeding animals, industrial uses, composting; and, finally, landfill/incinerating as a last resort.
For many, donating more “unsaleable” food is a matter of overcoming challenges like transportation, storage and refrigeration, as well as a lack of confidence that donations will be handled safely, according to a study by the Business for Social Responsibility commissioned by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (facilitated by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Food Marketing Institute and National Restaurant Association).
In order to determine where you should begin — or expand — your food waste reduction efforts, conduct a waste audit by measuring the amount, type and reason for the generation of wasted food. With this knowledge, you can create a baseline from which you can measure progress and identify areas to reduce or avoid the generation of the waste, as well as opportunities to reuse, recycle or find other value in those materials outside of landfills. The EPA provides a variety of free tools for conducting a waste audit, as does the National Restaurant Association’s Conserve program.
The FAO’s Reducing Food Wastage Footprint Took Kit offers case studies as well as tips for reducing food waste, including:
Many restaurants and grocery stores can make great strides in reducing food waste by simply adopting better business habits, like tracking customer orders to more accurately purchase food inventory, modifying menus to prevent and reduce uneaten food, scheduling fresh truck deliveries daily instead of forecasting orders and implementing computer-assisted ordering.
Consider what you can do. Every little bit helps.
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