Forty percent of food in the United States is never eaten, amounting to $165 billion a year in waste, taking a toll on the country's water resources and significantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council released this week.
The group says more than 20 pounds of food is wasted each month for each of 311 million Americans, amounting to $1,350 to $2,275 a annually in waste for a family of four. Think of it as dumping 80 quarter-pound hamburger patties in the garbage each month, or chucking two dozen boxes of breakfast cereal into the trash bin rather than putting them in your pantry.
The report points out waste in all areas of the U.S. food supply chain, from field to plate, from farms to warehouses, from buffets to school cafeterias.
"Food is simply too good to waste," the report says. "Given all the resources demanded for food production, it is critical to make sure that the least amount possible is needlessly squandered on its journey to our plates."
Most of the waste comes in the home, the report says.
"American families throw out approximately 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy," the report says. It cites several reasons, including that food has been so cheap and plentiful in the United States that Americans don't value it properly.
"Food represents a small portion of many Americans' budgets, making the financial cost of wasting food too low to outweigh the convenience of it," the report says. "This issue of wasted food is simply not on the radar of many Americans, even those who consider themselves environment- or cost-conscious."
Enticed by impulse buys, sales and savings by buying in bulk, Americans simply buy more food than they can eat, the report says. Part of that problem comes from poor planning -- such as impromptu decisions to eat out when there's still food in the fridge -- and when we do cook at home, making enough to fill the plate rather than what we actually need to eat. The average size of the U.S. dinner plate is 36 percent bigger now than it was in 1960, the report says.
Portion sizes account for significant food loss in restaurants, too, it says. Seventeen percent of the food in restaurant meals is not eaten, the report says, but too much food is served.
"Today, portion sizes can be two to eight times larger than USDA or FDA standard serving sizes," the report says.
And restaurants stock more food than they serve, it says.
"Particularly wasteful are large buffets, which cannot reuse or even donate most of what is put out because of health code restrictions," the report says.
Changes can be made in school cafeterias, too, according to the report. It encourages schools to serve lunch after recess so students would have more time to eat and therefore eat some of what they waste now.
Retailers also bear some responsibility, the report says.
"The retail model views waste as a part of doing business," it says, noting that stores may be looked at suspiciously by their corporate parents if their waste numbers are too low. "Industry executives and managers view appropriate waste as a sign that a store is meeting quality-control and full-shelf standards."
Among the problems at the retail level, according to the report:
-- Stores overstock displays of fresh produce to give an impression of bounty, leaving items at the bottom bruised and unsellable.
-- They make too much ready-to-eat food. "One grocer estimated that his store threw away a full 50 percent of the rotisserie chickens that were prepared," the report said.
-- They throw out food in damaged or outdated promotional packaging (think holiday cookies) that is still edible.
Waste also occurs on the farm and in the packing house.