Can We End America's Massive Food Waste Problem?

Almost half of America's food is thrown out every year. Despite the popularity of things like local markets and farm-to-fork initiatives, the U.S. food system remains a heavily industrialized, wasteful business.

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In downtown Washington, D.C., sits Union Market, a warehouse turned chic artisanal marketplace. It’s home to many pop-up stores selling things like organic produce, grass-fed beef, chemical-free soaps, and chef-grade kitchen knives. Here, anyone can aspire to cook like a chef or eat like a food critic.

We want it cheap, high quality, and organic.

The Florida Avenue Market complex, where Union Market is located, is one of D.C.'s last wholesale food markets. Part retail, part restaurant supply, Florida Avenue Market is emblematic of America’s conflicting relationship with food. We want our food cheap, high quality, and organic. We want all types of food regardless of season, beautifully displayed, and free of cosmetic imperfections.

Few of Union Market’s hip clientele who flock here every weekend to eat, drink, and shop venture into its back alleys. In the narrow passageways between these giant warehouses, food is transported to the market’s eateries and sent out to many of Washington’s small restaurants. Anyone daring enough to explore the gloomy alleys would find dumpsters overflowing with produce, much of which is still edible. Most of these customers are blissfully unaware of the amount of food waste it takes to offer up the produce they’ve come to expect.

We’re constantly exposed to ads that reinforce the narrative that our perfect fruits and impeccable vegetables happily travel from farms across America to the shelves of our local grocery stores without incident. However, getting that perfect produce comes at a price. “Not every apple grows perfectly red or is perfectly shaped on the tree,” says Dana Gunders, a staff scientist and food waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Yet once you get to your local grocery store, that is what you see.”

Farmers and store procurement managers carefully select the produce that winds up on the shelves of local grocery stores. Then, when customers walk into the store, they examine their options and choose the perfect fruit to put into their shopping bags. So what about all the other food that doesn’t make the cut?

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, about one-third of all the food produced worldwide—or 1.3 billion tons—goes to waste every year. The food wasted in North America and Europe alone is enough to feed three times the world’s hungry people every year, according to a 2011 McKinsey Institute study.

“In the U.S., about 40 percent of all the food never gets eaten,” says Gunders. “That’s everything from food lost on the farm all the way to the potatoes left on your breakfast platter. When you contrast that with the fact that there are 800 million people around the world who are food insecure, that’s quite a moral tragedy.”

Examining the moral issues around food waste has become common in recent years, thanks in part to public figures like Pope Francis, who often speaks about the wastefulness of modern-day habits.

“The culture of waste has made us insensitive even to the waste and disposal of food,” the Pope said during a 2013 speech in Rome. “All over the world, unfortunately, many individuals and families are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Throwing away food is like stealing from the poor and the hungry.”

About 40 percent of all the food never gets eaten.

The reality is that despite the popularity of things like local markets, farm to fork initiatives, and trendy food stalls like the ones inside Union Market, the American food system remains a heavily industrialized, wasteful business. Most food still travels hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from large-scale farms to grocery store chains where most Americans purchase their food, often in uber-large quantities.

Our food waste is a huge environmental problem. According to a 2012 study, 80 percent of our water consumption, more than 50 percent of our land area, and 10 percent of our energy use goes to agriculture, but 40 percent of that food is not eaten. Instead, that food rots in landfills, producing the harmful greenhouse gas methane. Today, food is the No. 1 product in American landfills.

A lot of that food ends up in the trash because it’s gone bad—or at least we think it's gone bad. Along with forgotten leftovers in the back corner of refrigerators, expiration labels play a huge role in the food waste cycle. The Food Marketing Institute estimates that nine out of 10 Americans needlessly throw away food because they believe expiration labels indicate whether food is safe to eat.

Actually, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), mandated to ensure the safety of consumers, does not regulate expiration labels (with the exception of baby formula). The dates printed on expiration labels are arbitrary and at the discretion of the companies that produce our food. Often times, food is perfectly safe to consume beyond the indicated date.

“Food goes to waste because it is expensive to move and maintain.”

“It’s kind of more like the Wild West,” says Gunders. “You have the manufacturers who are coming up with those dates.” Companies don’t have incentive to curtail food waste; in fact, it can benefit them to list a short time period on their products. The sooner their products “expire,” the sooner people have to throw them out and get a new one. One study found the average American family spends between $1,365 and $2,275 on food they throw out every year. Gunders says reforming the use of expirations dates may be one easy way to relieve America’s food waste problem.

As for retail food waste, the scale of the problem is even larger. Roger Gordon’s brother has worked as a food delivery truck driver for 25 years and taught him a lot about waste in the industry. When a driver arrives to a supermarket with imperfect-looking products that may be late or experienced minor temperature fluctuations in the truck's refrigerators, Gordon has heard of store managers who will reject the delivery. He says truck drivers and farmers usually have an agreement that stipulates drivers get rid of food as quickly as possible if it’s rejected by the store.

“Food goes to waste because it is expensive to move and maintain. It goes to waste because it is expensive to transport and to keep cold," Gordon says. "If you don’t have an immediate buyer for it, the most business-responsible thing to do is to throw it away. There is a dumpster at the end of every loading dock, and it's full of fresh produce.”

Gordon believes that our industrial food waste problem is the result of a lack of infrastructure. He says the volume of food waste at our stores and restaurants is so significant that workers rather dump food than worry about getting it to people who will eat it, regardless of cosmetic imperfections. That’s why Gordon founded Food Cowboy, a business that utilizes mobile technology to ship soon to be thrown out food from wholesalers and restaurants to food banks and soup kitchens.

Retailers can download the Food Cowboy app, and when they have food that can’t be sold in their store, they list those items on the app, as well as their location. Food Cowboy then contacts nearby charities, and those organzations use the app to schedule a pick up time for the donated items.

“Food Cowboy is essentially an air traffic control system for orphaned food,” Gordon explains. “We realized there was a missing technology gap.” Gordon admits his efforts are a small drop in the bucket—or, in this case, a dumpster full of tomatoes—but he hopes Food Cowboy can be used as an example of the role technology can play in solving our food waste problems.

So why don’t retailers and restaurants donate surplus food more often? Gunders says many business owners often worry about being sued if their donated food makes someone sick. This, Gunders points out, is a misconception around liability risk in donating food. The Good Samaritan Act is one of the few meaningful laws enacted to address food waste and stipulates that as long as food is donated with good intent, the donor is protected from any liability.

Whether it's back at Union Market, in a suburban superstore, or in your own kitchen, there are plenty of ways to lessen waste and keep food out of landfills.