Why Americans Lead the World in Food Waste

Calories are cheap and people are picky.

Elaine Thompson / AP

Americans waste an unfathomable amount of food. In fact, according to a Guardian report released this week, roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away—some 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually, an amount constituting “one third of all foodstuffs.” Wasted food is also the single biggest occupant in American landfills, the Environmental Protection Agency has found.

What causes this? A major reason is that food is cheaper in the United States than nearly anywhere else in the world, aided (controversially) by subsidies to corn, wheat, milk, and soybeans. But the great American squandering of produce appears to be a cultural dynamic as well, enabled in large part by a national obsession with the aesthetic quality of food. Fruits and vegetables, in addition to generally being healthful, have a tendency to bruise, brown, wilt, oxidize, ding, or discolor and that is apparently something American shoppers will not abide. For an American family of four, the average value of discarded produce is nearly $1,600 annually. (Globally, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of all food grown is lost or wasted, an amount valued at nearly $3 trillion. )

Writing about food waste for The Atlantic back in 2014, Elizabeth Segran gestured at both the shoppers who refuse to buy imperfect-looking fruit as well as the grocers who refuse to stock the shelves with any wonky-looking wares. “Grocery stores routinely trash produce for being the wrong shape or containing minor blemishes,” Doug Rauch, the former president of the Trader Joe’s Company, told her.

But that assumes such produce even reaches the stores. Quoting workers and experts at a variety of vantage points in the food system, The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg also reports that, “Vast quantities of fresh produce grown in the U.S. are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or hauled directly from the field to landfill, because of unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards.”

“In my mind, the desire for perfect produce came about in the 1940s as housewives adapted to widespread refrigeration and new CPG [consumer packaged goods] products,” Eve Turow Paul, the author of A Taste of Generation Yum, writes in an email. “Suddenly, you could get a pineapple in Chicago in January. Wonderbread hit shelves a decade before. Perfection and manicured foods came to represent safety and new technology.”

It’s easy to see how this obsession might become amplified in an era of high foodie-ism and Instagram where a sort of heirloom airbrushing has taken hold. Writing in The Times in 2014, Pete Wells christened the extension of this phenomenon in restaurants as “camera cuisine,” where dishes are tailored for the patron as well as a “global club whose members, checking out their phones or laptops, constitute an invisible gallery in the dining room.”

Wells relays a story of being “shutter-shamed” after posting a picture of trout that did not meet a certain communal artistic benchmark. The retail version of this experience might be a farmer’s market where a bunch of ramps or sheaths of leeks would be shunted aside if they couldn’t pass muster on a Nancy Meyers set.

Paul pushes back against the idea that the anointed few seated at the head of the table might be oblivious to the cause of food waste. “Especially in the last year, ‘foodies’ and chefs have catapulted the issue of food waste into popular conversations,” she adds, naming initiatives by chefs and public intellectuals such as Dan Barber and Roy Choi as well as the pu pu platter of coverage of the issue in elite food magazines.

Last year, the Obama administration announced a public-private campaign to halve the more than two million calories that Americans waste annually by the year 2030 by focusing on improving food efficiency, recycling, decoding food labels, and finding ways to deliver food to the one-in-six Americans that are hungry. Meanwhile, start-ups like the Bay Area’s Imperfect Produce are starting to deliver ugly but otherwise consumable goods at a discount.

Elsewhere in the world, the tinkering between policy and public education is underway. France has banned supermarkets from throwing away food by directing them to compost or donate all expiring or unsold food. Germany is focusing on the issue in part by reforming expiration dates, which many argue are arbitrary and problematic.

The United States still may have the farthest to go, particularly on a cultural level. “My hope is that as food education proliferates, so will an appreciation for ugly fruits and veggies, biodiversity, local crops, and so much more, all of which can help mitigate food waste,” Paul adds. “Wouldn't it be neat if the power of Instagram was used to share recipes for carrot top pesto and food scrap stock? Or if we had easy-to-use apps for sharing extra produce with neighbors or food pantries? Both ideas I've already seen foodies fiddling with.”