Blair Horner: America’s Food Waste Crisis Moves To The Front Burner

Oct 23, 2017

In an era of growing poverty, homelessness and hunger, it’s amazing how little attention the problem of food waste gets by policymakers.  According to a 2016 report (in the Guardian), 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, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

What causes this? A major reason is that food is cheap in the U.S.  In addition, the concern over the appearance of food also drives waste.   Fruits and vegetables, for example, have a tendency to more easily bruise or discolor and that is a big “no no” for American shoppers.  Thus, aesthetically unappealing foods are yanked off supermarket shelves and sent to landfills.  The cost is of this food loss is included in the cost of food that is sold and it is estimated that it costs an average American family an additional $1,600 annually.   

Food experts say there is growing awareness that governments cannot effectively fight hunger, or climate change, without reducing food waste. Food waste accounts for about 8% of global climate pollution, more than India or Russia.

Within the US, discarded food is the biggest single component of landfill and incinerators, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Food dumps are a rising source of methane, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Policymakers admit that they are only beginning to come to grips with the scale of the problem.

But that growing problem may start to change. 

A recent documentary (“WASTED! The Story of Food Waste”) was released by well-known chefs Anthony Bourdain and Danny Bowien and presents statistics about America's food waste crisis, examples of policy changes around the world, opportunities in systems from schools to grocery stores, and stories from other notable chefs such as Dan Barber and Mario Batali.

The film examines the growing attention the issue of food waste is having on policymakers in other countries.  For example, recently France became the first nation in the world to ban supermarkets from wasting food.

In that country, large grocery stores must now donate unsold food to charities, a move that will result in millions more meals for France’s needy.  The law came on the heels of a grassroots movement by shoppers that aims to expand versions of France’s law to all of the European Union.

Previously, French supermarkets could trash still-edible food before it even reached its best-before or sell-by dates. (Such dates don’t indicate when a product will spoil, but rather when it reaches peak quality.)

Supermarkets will also be banned from intentionally destroying discarded food; there had been reports that some French supermarkets had dumped bleach onto throw-away food to prevent others from eating it.  The reason, the stores reportedly said, was to prevent food poisoning.

Other stores secured trash bins to prevent people from taking edible food from them, an increasingly popular practice among France’s unemployed, homeless and poor.  Now all supermarkets over 4,300 square feet in size must hold contracts with nonprofits or food banks.

In turn, those charities must collect, stock and properly redistribute the would-be wasted food, added responsibilities that will require more volunteers and more storage space.

Beyond France, the nation of Italy passed a law to reduce food waste as well, Japan has adopted aggressive measures to curb the wasting of food and South Korea charges residents fees by volume for their food waste, which is separated like recyclables.

New York (both the state and the city), which prides itself on environmental sensitivities and which is home to some of the greatest restaurants in the world, has taken steps toward attacking this problem.  A comprehensive embrace of the growing global movement to curb food waste could dramatically strengthen those efforts.  Done correctly, it could help feed the hungry, curb greenhouse gas emissions, and save consumers some money.

A win-win-win.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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