The numbers may not be quite in sync, but they’re eye-opening anyway: A good chunk of U.S.-produced food – some say more than a third, others say close to half – is not consumed but rather is thrown out annually as waste.
This occurs as one in eight Americans (updated to one in six in the COVID era) is classified as “food insecure,” or unsure if they’ll have enough to eat.
And it’s not just a U.S. problem, as comparable waste and want exist on a global scale.
But if the food supply must continue to increase to feed a growing world population, even as agricultural productivity declines in the face of floods and drought owing to climate change, the waste problem – whatever its percentage – could be a solution.
“What can we do to overcome this challenge?” Alexandria Coari, an executive at ReFED, asked last week in a webinar on food waste. “Maximize the usage of food already being produced,” she answered.
As one of three panelists in the Food Institute-hosted webinar, she cited data showing that food loss and waste happen “all across the supply chain”: at the farm (21%), at the factory (14%), in restaurants and food stores (28%), and at home (37%).
An estimated half of food lost at the farm is edible, but might not be harvested because it isn’t perfect in appearance, she said. At restaurants, 70% of wasted food is from diners’ overloaded plates. At home, we’re confused by “sell by” and “use by” dates and needlessly toss food into the garbage.
“Food waste is the No. 1 material going into our landfills right now,” Coari says, and has related environmental impacts in wasted water and cropland and carbon emissions when food is trashed.
In response, ReFED, a New York City-based nonprofit focused on ending food loss and waste, has developed a “roadmap” with a goal of reducing U.S. food waste by 50% by 2030.
The plan lays out a grid of seven “action areas,” such as “optimizing the harvest” and “strengthening food rescue,” then offers specific ideas as tested solutions, best practices or untested suggestions in each of the seven areas.
For instance, “donation coordination/matching” is listed as a tested way to strengthen food rescue; “on-farm/near-farm processing” is presented as a best practice to optimize the harvest.
ReFED puts a $14 billion annual price tag on the reduction scheme, which could be underwritten by grants, tax incentives, venture capital and corporate money, says Coari, who as vice president works on financing. The resulting diversion of some 45 million tons of food waste each year will yield not only more meals and reduced ancillary environmental costs, but also new jobs.
“I know that sounds like a lot of money,” Coari says, “but that investment actually would give us a 5-to-1 return in terms of more than $70 billion in annual net financial benefit.”
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]