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Tackling Food Waste in the U.S.

Tackling Food Waste in the U.S.

Since the 2012 Dana Gunders report “Wasted” for the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) was published, food waste has generated a lot of media attention including multiple TED Talks and articles specifically highlighting consumer waste, restaurant waste, and farm waste. In this two part series, Dietetic Intern Sherene Chou, explores the consumer’s role versus the operator’s role in tackling the food waste problem. How does each group contribute to food waste and what are some solutions to help alleviate this problem?

Consumer Food Waste

In “Wasted”, Gunders states, “American families throw out approximately 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy...estimated as $1300-2200 dollars lost per family of four each year.” In the UK, a study from the WRAP group on household food and waste shows that the majority of household losses are due to spoilage of uncooked foods and a third of the food is being thrown out due to overestimating portion sizes from cooking too much food. Wasting food not only depletes household dollars, but it also has significant impacts on the environment. Almost a quarter of the methane emissions in the U.S. is due to the decomposition of uneaten food. This greenhouse gas is at least 25% stronger than carbon dioxide’s effects on global warming, according to Gunders.

Consumers can make a difference! To help mitigate these issues, start by rethinking these three areas:

1. Portions
For the past twenty years restaurants have increased their portion sizes at least two and even up to three times more, which has caused confusion among consumers distorting what is a normal serving. Educating yourself on how much should be eaten can help you better estimate how much to buy when purchasing foods. Not only will you be able to serve healthier meals at home, you’ll be reducing the risk of serving too much that could then result in wasted food. 

Tip sheet: Serving Size Comparison Chart

2. Storage and Organization
Learning proper storage and organizational techniques will help extend the life of food, avoid the growth of food borne illness causing bacteria and reduce the risk of throwing away that container of tuna salad in the back of your fridge that you forgot about for 3 weeks.

  • Buy a thermometer – this will help make sure food is kept at the right temperature. Keep the fridge temperature at or below 40 degrees and the freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Don't overstock the fridge – overstocking causes temperature fluctuations and may make it easy to forget what is in the fridge.
  • Use partially used items first – cut fruits and vegetables always spoil first and are at greater risk for bacteria.
  • Practice FIFO - First in First out – re-organize the fridge with FIFO in mind. Place old items in front and new behind will make sure old items are used first and not forgotten.

Tip sheets: Where to store fruits and vegetables
How to store food safely
How to extend the life of your produce

3. Waste
Gunders states, “The average American consumer discards 10 times as much as the average Southeast Asian.” Learning how to repurpose foods can help prevent food from becoming waste. Think of using the whole vegetable from root to frond. Check out this video from Chef Olivia from the Natural Gourmet Institute for some great ideas.

  • Stocks – unused parts of meats and vegetables could be used to make stocks at home.
  • Jams and toppings – ripe fruits can be mashed up and cooked down to use for later.
  • Pickles – chard and broccoli stems, watermelon and citrus rinds can all be used to make delicious pickles.
  • Freezing – a great way to save leftover foods. Always have fresh herbs on hand by saving leftover herbs in ice cube trays with olive oil – a great way to spice up soups, pastas and stir-fries. Freeze extra food in 1-2 serving sizes to take what is needed without defrosting the whole batch. To save on space, try freezing soups and stocks in muffin tins and then bag frozen portions to prevent sticking multiple containers in the freezer.
  • Composting – helps manage waste, reduces methane emissions, and recycles nutrients. Find a local composting program here.

Tip sheet:
How to make chicken stock

Stay tuned to read how food service operations can work to reduce food waste.


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