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The Impact Of Food Waste Spans Beyond The Kitchen

Americans waste anywhere from 30% to 40% of food that's produced in the U.S., says an environmental science professor at American University.
Posted at 7:43 PM, Nov 23, 2022

Americans waste a lot of food — about $1,500 annually for a family of four, according to the USDA. 

"We waste anywhere from 30 to 40% of all food that's produced in the United States," said Sauleh Siddiqui, associate professor of Environmental Science at American University.

Waste has a global impact not just on people's pocketbooks, but on the environment. 

"Eight to 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions going into food that's thrown out. That's more than the airline sector," said Ronnie Neff, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

But it doesn’t start in the kitchen — food waste is more of a team effort.

Here’s where some of the problem lies: If people take a look at a squash, for example, they may think it looks fine. But if that same squash is next to a more plump looking squash in a grocery store, consumers may think there’s something wrong with it. That’s where fulfillment centers like Misfits Market want to make a change — the market is on a mission to help fix how Americans perceive food.

"This is from the tail of a salmon versus a kind of center cut. Still really juicy, really flavorful. It has a lot of fat marbling," said Holly Eagleson, vice president of Misfits Market, pointing to a cut of fish.

The online grocer takes otherwise discarded foods from farmers and manufactures, and sells them at a discount — and there’s no shortage of supply.

"There's a lot of investment that these farmers put into it, and they don't always get a fair return if grocery stores are looking at these strict standards that have nothing to do with quality or deliciousness," said Eagleson. 

"As much as 80% of the food that's wasted at the farm level is left behind after the harvest. And a good portion of that, I believe more than half of that is edible," said Neff. 

According to researchers at ReFED, that’s due to labor shortages, low market prices and strict grocery store standards. There are also complaints about working conditions.

"A lot of our farm workers — often their rights are ignored. It's also ignored like what the working conditions are, and those are all part of this problem. We can't separate the idea of waste from the idea of the humans that are actually working in this food system," said Siddiqui. 

It goes beyond produce — grocery stores tend to only keep what they think people will buy.

"Maybe it's a seasonal item, maybe it's like a Halloween cookie and it's past Halloween now, but that still has a ton of great fresh shelf life on it, and it shouldn't go to waste," said Eagleson. 

Trying to figure out ways to cut the waste on every level isn’t easy, because the answers aren’t one-size-fits-all. 

"Not everyone has the ability to actually take that compost to a composting facility. Not everyone has the ability to be close enough to a grocery store where they can shop frequently. And so then they don't have to buy a lot of stuff, and they can buy smaller things," said Siddiqui.

Siddiqui and Neff are part of Multiscale RECIPES, a network of universities and private and government groups working to find solutions to America's food waste problem. 

One answer is ending confusion over expiration dates — those "best by" or "use by" labels seen on products.

"Often we are throwing out food that is still good quality, but we thought there was a problem with it," said Neff. 

Advocates have been pushing for streamlined federal standards for all manufactures for years, since 50% of food wasted at the retail level is due to label confusion, according to researchers at ReFED. Another solution would be to change the perception of what is and isn’t edible — something the team at Misfits is working towards, one misshapen potato at a time.

"None of them look that great and kind of funny anyway, is the potatoes. So on the outside it doesn't matter so much when it's so quality in the inside," said Eagleson. 

Experts say there’s still a long way to go. 

"Any type of problem we solve in society, unless we take that broader systems perspective, we're not going to solve it," Siddiqui.