Food Waste: A $100 Billion Problem

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Jonathan Bloom, journalist and author of American Wasteland, talks about our growing food waste issue in the United States and what individual households can do to help fight it

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At the recent international conference on food and nutrition in Milan, I sat down with Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland and a journalist and speaker on food waste in the United States. Bloom took part in the the Barilla International Forum on Food and Nutrition, where he was joined by four other internationally recognized specialists researching, writing about, and looking at waste around the world.

When did the food waste issues take root in the United States?

As the United States has gradually kept producing more food than it requires, we have got to the point now where we waste 40 percent of the food we produce for consumption. That is around $100 billion dollars a year. It became more of an issue after the Clinton administration left office. In the 1990s there was a national food recovery coordinator at the USDA, but that position was cut after Clinton left.

So food waste isn't really talked about in political circles?

No, not really. Most people in the U.S. don't perceive it as a problem. In Europe there is an EU goal to lower waste by 50 percent by the year 2020. So there are people at a high level taking this very seriously in Europe. Also in 2013 the EU will start a campaign called "A Year Against Waste." Slowly things are changing and it is encouraging.

Part of the talks this week in Milan are on childhood obesity. How is food waste connected to that?

That is a great question and one that many people don't think about. In the U.S. we teach our children that wasting food is okay. If you think about portion size, for example, in many restaurants, you normally have two choices. You can overeat or you can waste food. Those are two choices that are contributing to the food education of our children. By offering them such large portions of food we encourage them to eat more than they need, or to just throw it away.

So how do we address food waste and obesity?

It all comes back to knowing where your food comes from. From commonality with producers, products, and how things made, we have lost touch with our food sources. I think that the national school lunch program also has to not only feed children, but help to educate them in food choices as well. Kids need choices at lunch. There are a lot of groups working in this area now, which is great to see.

What are some of the main differences between how food waste is managed in the EU compared to the U.S.?

There is a basic difference in awareness between the two. In the EU, there is a significant lack of space for trash and waste, so the governments here have had to introduce very strict programs in recycling and managing trash and waste. In the U.S. we have plenty of space to build landfills. Also in Europe there is a big difference in the style of food retailing. People don't go to the grocery store and stock up on food for two weeks. Too much food can lead to food waste very easily. Again, it comes down to size. Most refrigerators in Europe are smaller than those in the U.S. and you can't keep that much food in them. It forces you to shop more frequently, and as such, create less waste by eating the food that you have.

Where is the majority of food waste coming from?

Believe it or not, the majority of food waste comes from households.

So what can a family do to help combat food waste in the home?

    Plan your meals before you grocery shop. Make a detailed shopping list and stick to it. Serve reasonable sized portions. Save your leftovers. And then eat those leftovers. Also, try to use what you already have in your fridge and cupboard.

    Image: marslander/Shutterstock.

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    Jesse Dart is a writer and photographer based in Italy.

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