Up to 40% of Food Produced in the U.S. is Wasted

Food waste presents a major challenge in the United States. Estimates suggest that up to 40% of the food produced nationally never gets consumed, causing substantial economic and environmental harms. Wasted food utilizes vast quantities of precious land, water and human resources, yet rather than nourishing people, it feeds landfills, producing methane gasses that poison the environment. Much of the food waste (43%) occurs at the household level.

Household waste is exacerbated by a variety of factors, including inappropriate retail food portion sizes, confusing food labels with non-standardized pull dates, the relatively low-cost of food for some constituencies and inadequate consumer messaging about proper food handling and storage. A 2014 USDA report estimated that a staggering 1,249 calories per person per day in the United States are wasted—more than enough to feed all the 1 in 8 Californians currently experiencing hunger and food insecurity.

Leveraging Nutrition Education Programs to Tackle Food Waste in California

How can we tackle this critical issue? On Feb. 3, leaders from California’s public health and nutrition education programs (including WIC, the National School Lunch Program, SNAP-Ed and UC Cooperative Extension) will meet in Sacramento to consider new opportunities for supporting Californians to optimize food resources and reduce food waste.

The meeting is co-hosted by the Public Health Alliance of Southern California and the Nutrition Policy Institute of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Experts from the National Resources Defense Council, ReFed and Californians Against Waste will provide an overview of the waste issue and current national and statewide food waste reduction goals.

Why This Work is Important

I find the field of food and nutrition fascinating, because food presents an intersection of so many critical issues: human health, environmental health, culture and societal sustainability. The increasing amount of food waste in the United States and around the world is symptomatic of flaws in our food, economic and social systems. Thus, the solutions to this challenge will help alleviate many of humanity’s pressing challenges, including human hunger, environmental degradation, fair resource distribution and cultural sustainability. Additionally, food waste feels like a problem that people can understand and solve collectively if we put our minds to it.

What Do I Hope We Accomplish?

The dream outcome of this meeting would be for California’s nutrition education program leaders to have generated new strategies and commitments, which will help Californians reduce food waste through consumer messaging as well as proposed policy and system changes.

This first gathering is intended primarily as an opportunity for the programs to share ways in which they are already working to help people optimize their food resources and reduce waste. It’s also an opportunity to learn more about the national and global challenge of food waste and the current commitments to reduce it. The gathering will provide a place for us to begin a process of generating approaches for our programs, individually and collectively, to address the food waste challenge.

California is Leader in Food Waste
Many states are exploring ways to reduce food waste, but California is emerging as a leader. For example, California has convened a Food Waste Roundtable that brings together organizations from across the state to consider ways to prevent food waste.

UC ANR’s Vice President, Glenda Humiston, was a founding member of this group and I am now representing our organization at the Roundtable. In terms of convening nutrition education program leaders to talk about ways to further optimize food resources and reduce food waste, I don’t know of any other efforts like this around the country.

Reducing food waste presents a win-win opportunity in California, where innovative state mandates are in place to address climate change. Millions of Californians are food insecure, and yet about 40% of food produced is never consumed.

Want to Learn More about the Issue? Recommended Resources

The best resources come from some partners who will be joining us at the meeting.

ReFED, a collaboration of nonprofit, government, business and foundation leaders, released a report in 2016 that identifies a number of potential solutions to the food waste challenge.

Dana Gunders of the National Resource Defense Council authored a 2012 report called Wasted that sparked much of this work. Dana also authored a book called Waste Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money by Wasting Less Food, both of which are great reads. Interest in food waste continues to grow, so I expect there are many more excellent resources out there now and even more in the pipeline!

Editor’s Note: Some other pieces you might find interesting:

ICYMI, build better roads to reduce food waste

UC launches Good Food for Local Schools website

Nutrition Policy Institute Coordinates Drinking Water Project

Worth watching: An eight-minute film documenting food waste – and some possible solutions – was one of five films to win the Sundance Short Film Challenge a couple of years ago. “Man in the Maze” explores the complex issues of food waste and hunger. It takes viewers on a journey beginning at a landfill, to a food bank and into a discussion about gardens.

The film was produced by Greener Media. The filmmakers are Phil Buccellato and Jesse Ash. It features Gary Nabhan, a MacArthur genius grant recipient, academic and food activist. Nabhan is a long-time Arizona resident and a prolific author.