Waste Not, Want Not

spoiled foodThis American idiom literally means that if you do not waste anything, you will have enough. In the US 49 million Americans (that’s 1 in 6) struggle with food security, and millions more suffer from the lack of quality, healthy food. The problem is not in our food production. We grow enough food to feed our citizens but according to a recent report, America is losing up to 40% of its food from farm to fork to landfill. We are wasting and we are left wanting. If you are skeptic about this number, please check out the statements from the USDA supporting these findings and their associated initiative, the US Food Waste Challenge.

Some of the hard-hitting facts in the report:

  • 40% of food in the US goes uneaten, equivalent to 20lbs of food per person, per month.
  • Getting food to our tables eats up 10% of the total US energy budget, uses 50% of US land, and swallows 80% of freshwater consumed in the US.
  • Food saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year.
  • The average American today wastes up to 50% more than Americans in the 1970’s.

The report examines wastefulness in terms of food production, handling and storage, packaging, distribution and retail. It turns out that food groups are affected differently by these stages of the food supply chain. Fruits and vegetables suffer the most during production (20% loss) followed by seafood (11% loss). Fruits and vegetables also incur the most loss during handling and storage (3% loss). For those of you who are counting, that’s a quarter of our fresh fruits and vegetables, the healthiest part of our diet, already wasted before it’s even packaged! Grain products take the hardest hit during packaging (10% loss) likely because their small size lends itself to “falling between the cracks.” During distribution and retail it’s fruits and vegetables (12% loss) and seafood (9.5% loss) which have the highest losses again. Overall 52% of our fruits and vegetables are lost, 50% of our seafood, 38% of gain products, and about 20% of meat and milk.

In 2008, the amount of uneaten food in homes and restaurants was valued at roughly $390 per U.S. consumer – more than an average month’s worth of food expenditures.- USDA

What’s more is this wastefulness is costing us double. Food is the single largest component of municipal solid waste going to landfills, accounting for over 20% by weight. This decomposing food leads to increased methane emissions (food accounts for 16%) and adds to our mounting climate problems. As well the amount of energy and water associated with production is immense.

The amount of food Waste at Each Stage of the Food Supply Chain in our country is not only excessive, but disappointing. What is the purpose of maximizing production if we cannot follow through with delivering that food to the public? Rest assured these issues matter to everyone, including those of us lucky enough to eat regularly. The costs associated with food loss and distribution most definitely factor in to the final price of the products we buy. Next time you are riffling through that stack of peaches at the grocer avoiding the ones with bruises maybe you’ll ponder the truckloads like it being discarded and the millions of Americans who would happily just cut off that brown spot.

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.


  1. Anne Marie says:

    I struggle with waste in my own household. Living alone sometimes fresh foods go bad before I can eat all of them. I find myself eating more frozen items to avoid this.

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