While the holidays are a time of celebrating food and abundance, it’s also a time of tremendous waste. Americans waste more than 165 million kilograms (364 million pounds) of food every day but, according to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), two-thirds of residential food waste in the United States is edible. Meanwhile, 1 in 8 people in the U.S. do not have regular access to food. Fortunately, there are simple, effective, and inexpensive ways to utilize food that would otherwise end up in landfills during the holiday season.
The amount of food waste produced in the U.S. every 1.7 minutes weighs the same as the Statue of Liberty. A survey by the NRDC, however, found that 79 percent of people think they produce less food waste than the average American, revealing a disconnect between perceived and actual impact. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) determined that the average household tosses away US$2,200 of perfectly edible food annually.Most of this unnecessary waste ends up in landfills, costing US$2 billion a year to dispose of and producing 16 percent of all U.S. methane emissions.
At the same time, 41.2 million Americans do not know where their next meal will come from, including 12.6 million children and 5.4 million seniors. And food insecurity exists in every county in the U.S., ranging from 3 percent in Grant County, KY to 38 percent in Jefferson County, MS. The majority of food-insecure households participate in the Federal government’s three largest nutrition assistance programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program, which are all facing possible budget cuts. However, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that if we used all the food currently wasted, we could feed every hungry person in the world—four times over.
But there are ways to prevent waste. Plan ahead and make a list to avoid too much food and impulse-buying at the supermarket. Donate any extra fresh produce and vegetables to Ample Harvest and local food banks. When preparing for large meals, use an online portion calculator, such as one from Love Food Hate Waste. Afterwards, take notes on how much food was actually consumed to better plan for next time. Find new uses for “waste,” like turning vegetable scraps and bones into soup stock. And love your leftovers by exploring new recipes.
Communities and organizations are stepping forward, too. Organizations like the NRDC and ReFED are researching the causes of food waste and putting together roadmaps and policy recommendations to reduce waste. The Ad Council is informing the public about the severity of the problem and how individuals can tackle it. Feeding Hunger, Ample Harvest, and most food banks accept unused food to feed the less fortunate. In cities like Chicago, Austin, San Francisco, New York City, and everywhere in between, legislation is passing to divert food waste first to those in need, followed by livestock, and lastly to compost if no better option can be found.
And policymakers can make a difference. The Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects good faith food donors from any liability if the donated food causes harm while the USDA Food Loss and Waste Challenge calls on entities across the food system to address food waste. The Food Date Labeling Act, a bill waiting to be reintroduced in Congress, aims to make food date labels less confusing so less food is needlessly thrown out. Already introduced in Congress, the Food Recovery Act directs the USDA to develop new technologies, encourage composting through conservation programs, and appoints a Food Recovery Liaison to reduce federal food waste, while the Zero Waste Development and Expansion Act will create a grant program to provide resources for infrastructure, technology, and outreach to achieve zero waste.
It is an American tradition to open our hearts and pantries to provide assistance to those in need, especially as we give thanks for our good fortune. From farm to fork and fork to trash, the United States can prevent food loss and waste while helping erase hunger.