The Cost of Wasted Food

By Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman
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Photo by Rob!/Flickr CC


Like dwellings across the United States this past weekend, our home was filled with the aroma of simmering turkey bones. Heritage turkeys, we have learned these past two years, make exceptionally rich, flavorful broth. Part of this golden liquid was immediately used as the foundation of a large pot of turkey-rice soup, made with sage, thyme, carrots and celery. The rest we put into two containers that went directly into the freezer, where we also stashed some of the leftover meat.

Every scrap that was not something a human would enjoy eating we put into another huge pot, along with leftover spaghetti, bread, and rice--this one being doggie stew. About half of that went in the freezer, half in the fridge. Our dog Claire will be nourished by this stew for a couple of weeks. Nothing was wasted.

Such frugality with food comes naturally to both of us and has been fortified by time on the farm. In fact, we are pretty maniacal about it in our household. Our four parents all lived through times of real scarcity and taught us by example to treat food as sacred: throwing leftover food away was unheard of; allowing food to rot before it could be eaten was sacrilege.

The foundation of sustainable food production is the wise use of resources.

Farm life has strongly reinforced this tendency for thriftiness in both of us. Cultivating food engenders a deep understanding of the considerable resources and effort needed to produce it. Because meat, eggs, dairy and fish require taking the lives of animals, wasting nothing takes on even greater significance for those foods.

It shocks us whenever we come across research that documents the rampant wasting of food in the United States, which is truly at epidemic levels. For example, University of Arizona researchers have concluded that about half--yes half--of all food produced in the United States is never eaten. The same study determined that a typical American household throws away almost $600 worth of food every year.

Even through the use of more conservative waste estimates, the Environmental Protection Agency claims that food waste is the single largest component (by weight) of American garbage. And landfills account for about one quarter of the United States' human-generated methane. Moreover, according to the Department of Agriculture, recovery of just 25 percent of wasted food would feed 20 million people.

Food is wasted at all levels. Farmers growing vegetables will plow under their crops if they learn that the selling price has gone below the harvesting cost. Retailers and distributors throw food away as it approaches its "sell by" date. (Prepared foods are most likely to be thrown out at the retail level.) Households account for about 15 percent of total food loss.

Wasted food is often mentioned in discussions of hunger, yet one rarely finds it amid discussions of environmental sustainability. But it belongs there, too. The foundation of sustainable food production is the wise use of resources. Production is one part of the equation; the other part is utilization. A system that results in the dumping of 50 percent of what is produced is clearly dysfunctional. If Americans cut their food waste in half, it would reduce our national environmental impact by 25 percent, Arizona researchers concluded.

Food production that is closer in quantity to the amount needed for the consumers it feeds, such as through the development of regionalized "foodsheds," should improve the situation. Moreover, US farm policy should be re-examined regarding its emphasis on ever-greater production.

As individuals, we can help the food waste crisis by managing purchases of our own perishables as precious commodities. Keeping track of what is in the fridge, planning our shopping carefully, and freezing and using leftovers are good ways to control personal waste. Our turkey soup was delicious. We are already eagerly anticipating thawing the next batch of broth.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/12/the-cost-of-wasted-food/31089/