Reducing Food Insecurity through Effective Food Waste Management
Food Insecurity and Wasteful Consumption: A Troubling Paradox
According to the USDA, approximately 11.8% of households in America cope with food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined as uncertainty regarding whether or not a household will have enough food for all residents. This 11.8% of households encompasses 40 million individuals. Clearly, we have a problem. There is absolutely no reason that in the land of plenty, there are 40 million people who aren’t sure where their next meal is going to come from. It’s an abomination that 12 million American children have to wonder if there is going to be dinner instead of wondering what’s going to be for dinner. These numbers become especially unacceptable when we consider that 30-40% of all edible food is wasted.
In 2014, a study done by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans squander more than 38 million tons of food every year. That’s enough wasted food to fill up one college football stadium every single day. Food waste also has an astounding economic impact. We essentially throw away $218 billion dollars yearly. Additionally, we pour valuable resources into growing food that will never be consumed. About 21% of fresh water and 18% of cropland is devoted to food that will simply end up in the dump. It’s been speculated that saving even 15% of the food we waste could feed up to 25 million people.
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There are three major causes of food waste, and none of them have anything to do with the food being inedible. First and foremost, consumers overbuy and stores overstock. When our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, some things don’t get used. Second, the beauty standards for fruits and vegetables are almost as unrealistic as the beauty standards for women. When the quality of produce is gauged by its appearance, we end up wasting perfectly good and edible food simply because it looks a little funny.
Finally, “best if used by” and “sell by” labels cause some problems. In many instances, people mistake these labels as a statement about the safety of food after a certain time, but in reality, they simply give an estimation of freshness. While some food waste occurs at every level of the production process, most food waste happens in the home. It’s estimated that about 43% of food waste is the consumer’s fault.
EPA’s Food Waste Solutions: Priorities and Actions
The EPA has outlined the Food Recovery Hierarchy, which describes and prioritizes methods of reducing food waste. The first priority on their list was source reduction. This includes consumers being more conscious of the food that they buy and waste so that they can begin to purchase only what they will use. This could also mean that restaurants reduce portion sizes in order to limit the amount of food that customers leave on their plates. Source reduction might be implemented in grocery stores by selling disfigured produce at discounted prices instead of throwing it out. Colleges and schools can contribute to the reduction of food waste by eliminating trays from their cafeterias and by encouraging students to only take what they eat.
The second priority listed by the EPA is to feed hungry people. There is no reason for our food to be wasted when it could be redistributed to the 40 million individuals facing food insecurity. In our homes, this could mean donating non-perishable items that we won’t use to local food banks. It might include collaborating with organizations like Move for Hunger, which picks up food items directly from the houses of moving individuals and families. For stores, it might mean implementing programs like Kroger’s Perishable Donations Partnership (PDP). Groups like Food Forward are also making an impact by collecting unused and edible food and then distributing it to hunger relief agencies. We have a moral obligation to help our food-insecure neighbors, especially when we would otherwise throw away edible food.
The third option listed in the Food Recovery Hierarchy is to use our scraps to feed animals. Some institutions like Rutgers University and MGM Resorts International partner with local farms to donate their leftovers. This option is particularly feasible in show families, where scraps can simply be given to the animals in the backyard.
The EPA’s fourth preferred option to deal with food waste is to put it towards industrial uses. Food scraps can undergo a process called anaerobic digestion, where organic material is broken down by microorganisms. This process produces soil amendment and biogas. The East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, California, collects wasted food from restaurants and markets around the area to include in the facility’s process of anaerobic digestion.
Individual Action: Combating Food Waste at Home
East Bay captures and uses the methane produced by this process to assist in fueling the treatment plant. The biosolids produced by anaerobic digestion can be recycled back into the environment as a rich fertilizer. Finally, the EPA recommends composting as an avenue for avoiding food waste. Similar to anaerobic digestion, composting allows for organic matter to be broken down and returned to the soil as a fertilizer.
Food waste is a global problem and must be treated as such. However, until we are ready to attack food waste as a society, there are practical things that we can do as individuals to start putting a dent in the vast quantity of food that is squandered on a regular basis. We can start with being more frugal shoppers. People have a tendency to overbuy, particularly with perishable foods. We purchase more than we can eat before the product spoils, or we buy things in excess, and they end up sitting on pantry shelves for ages. We can also be more conscientious cooks. We can cook for the expected number in order to avoid leftovers that might be thrown into the trash bin.
When it comes to leftovers, Tupperware is our friend. Leftover food should be saved and eaten later. Additionally, it’s important to store food properly in order to maximize its lifetime. Freezing fresh produce is a good option for ensuring that we don’t buy too much just to let it rot. Let’s start viewing date labels on foods as guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Many foods are safe to be eaten long after they’ve exceeded their date labels. Finally, we should all make an attempt to be a little more generous. When possible, let’s donate food that we know we’re not going to use. If we make too much food, maybe we can give a plate to someone who is hungry.
Wasting 38 million tons of food yearly isn’t something that we can change overnight. Forty million food-insecure people isn’t an issue that we can reverse right away. But we do have some options. The food we don’t or won’t eat isn’t necessarily doomed to end up in a landfill. It’s important for us to work as a society and as individuals to reduce the amount of food we waste and turn our wastefulness towards productive purposes.
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Household Food Security in the United States. Economic Research Service. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2014). Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Fact Sheet. EPA. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/2014_smmfactsheet_508.pdf
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- EPA. (2021). Food Recovery Hierarchy. EPA. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/food-recovery-hierarchy
- Gunders, D. (2012). Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. Natural Resources Defense Council. Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf
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- Food Forward. Our Impact. Food Forward. Retrieved from https://foodforward.org/our-impact/
- East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD). Resource Recovery. EBMUD. Retrieved from https://www.ebmud.com/wastewater/recycling-wastewater/wastewater-sludge-and-food-scraps-recycling/