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Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4, W.6-8.9, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: People, Places, and Environments • Production, Distribution, and Consumption • Civic Ideals and Practices

THE BIG READ

Environment

Food Waste Nation

One-third of all food in the United States gets tossed every year. That’s a serious problem for the planet. Here’s how the government, cities, and teens like you are stepping up to help.

As You Read, Think About: Why is food waste a problem? What are some solutions that can help?

Patrick Latting and Liam de Villa Bourke deal with a lot of trash every week—1,100 pounds’ worth, to be exact. The teenagers from South Pasadena, California, collect heaping bags of half-eaten apples, discarded onion peels, and other food scraps from dozens of local homes and a food bank. Then they compost their haul, transforming the stinky piles into nutrient-rich material for gardening that they hand out for free at a nearby farmers’ market. 

The work is far from glamorous, says Patrick, 18. “It is extremely difficult to take the smell,” adds Liam, 17, shuddering. But the odorous effort is worth it, the teens agree. Nationwide, about 160 billion pounds of food gets trashed every year. Since last June, Patrick and Liam’s nonprofit, Compost Culture, has kept tens of thousands of pounds of it from ending up in landfills.

Patrick Latting and Liam de Villa Bourke deal with a lot of trash every week—1,100 pounds’ worth, to be exact. The teenagers are from South Pasadena, California. They collect heaping bags of half-eaten apples, discarded onion peels, and other food scraps from dozens of local homes and a food bank. Then they compost it. That changes the waste into nutrient-rich material for gardening that they hand out for free at a nearby farmers’ market.

The work is far from glamorous, says Patrick, 18. “It is extremely difficult to take the smell,” adds Liam, 17, shuddering. But they agree that the stinky effort is worth it. Nationwide, about 160 billion pounds of food gets trashed every year. Since last June, Compost Culture—Patrick and Liam’s nonprofit—has kept tens of thousands of pounds of food trash from ending up in landfills.

Liam de Villa Bourke/Courtesy of Compost Culture

Patrick Latting (left) and Liam de Villa Bourke prepare to work on their compost piles.

“Most of our customers cared about the environment, they just didn’t know what to do or didn’t have the resources to do it,” Liam says. “Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for people.” 

Up to 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten or unsold each year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy group. That’s enough food to fill more than 700 football stadiums every 12 months. 

Beyond just being a waste, trashed food is a problem for the environment. Growing, processing, and transporting food produces greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. What’s more, food that ends up in landfills gives off more greenhouse gas emissions as it rots, making the problem even worse.

The U.S. has struggled with food waste for decades, but experts say the situation demands even more urgency now, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. One in six Americans today do not have enough to eat on a regular basis, according to Feeding America, an antihunger nonprofit. And yet billions of pounds of food are still ending up in landfills. 

“A lot of the food that is going to waste is actually not waste,” says Madeline Keating of the NRDC. “There’s just more of it than we can consume or are effectively consuming. We need to rethink how we approach food.” 

“Most of our customers cared about the environment. They just didn’t know what to do or didn’t have the resources to do it,” Liam says. “Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for people.”

Up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten or unsold each year. That is according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy group. That is enough food to fill more than 700 football stadiums every year.

Trashed food is not just a waste. It also is bad for the environment. Growing, processing, and transporting food produces greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. Also, food that ends up in landfills gives off more greenhouse gas emissions as it rots. That makes the problem even worse.

The U.S. has struggled with food waste for decades. But experts say the situation demands even more urgency now, during the Covid-19 pandemic. One in six Americans today do not have enough to eat regularly. That is according to Feeding America, an antihunger nonprofit. And yet billions of pounds of food is still ending up in landfills.

“A lot of the food that is going to waste is actually not waste,” says Madeline Keating of the NRDC. “There’s just more of it than we can consume or are effectively consuming. We need to rethink how we approach food.”

What You Need to Know

iStockPhoto/Getty Images

Composting turns food scraps into a nutrient-rich fertilizer.

Compost: To break down food scraps and other organic matter into a soil-like material that can be used as a fertilizer for gardening. Fruit peels and other “green” matter are mixed with “brown” matter such as dead leaves. When kept moist, the combination promotes the growth of bacteria and fungi that can break down the material in about 4 to 12 months.   

Landfill: A site where garbage is buried. New waste is spread out, flattened by heavy machinery, and covered with soil to deter pests. More layers are added daily. The process maximizes a landfill’s capacity but also removes most of the oxygen. As a result, the garbage decomposes very slowly and produces a powerful mix of greenhouse gases as it decays.

Compost: To break down food scraps and other organic matter into a soil-like material that can be used as a fertilizer for gardening. Fruit peels and other “green” matter are mixed with “brown” matter such as dead leaves. When kept moist, the combination promotes the growth of bacteria and fungi that can break down the material in about 4 to 12 months.   

Landfill: A site where garbage is buried. New waste is spread out, flattened by heavy machinery, and covered with soil to deter pests. More layers are added daily. The process maximizes a landfill’s capacity but also removes most of the oxygen. As a result, the garbage decomposes very slowly and produces a powerful mix of greenhouse gases as it decays.

Top Cause of Waste 

Much of the problem starts at home, Keating says. Almost 40 percent of all U.S. food waste happens at the individual level. That’s more than what occurs at any other part of the nation’s food supply chain, including farms, restaurants, and grocery stores (see graph, below).

Much of the problem starts at home, Keating says. Almost 40 percent of all U.S. food waste happens at the individual level. That is more than what occurs at any other part of the nation’s food supply chain, including farms, restaurants, and grocery stores. (See graph, below.)

Why? Food in the U.S. tends to be plentiful and relatively cheap, so people typically buy more than they need, often in bulk. That excess continues at home, experts say. Many Americans cook portions that are too large, then end up scraping uneaten—but still edible—leftovers right into the trash.

Food in fridges doesn’t fare much better. Americans eat only about half the meat and even less of the fruits, vegetables, and dairy products in their refrigerators, a 2019 study from Ohio State University revealed. 

Some of that food is stored improperly, so it spoils faster than expected. Other items end up forgotten in the back. Even food that hasn’t gone bad gets tossed. About 80 percent of Americans throw away food based on “best by” or “use by” dates. But those labels indicate when a product is at its peak taste and texture, not when it becomes unsafe to eat, explains Jonathan Bloom, a food waste expert and author of American Wasteland. “Food usually lasts a lot longer than those dates,” he says, so it’s best to rely on your senses to tell whether something is still good. 

Why? Food in the U.S. tends to be plentiful and relatively cheap. So people often buy more than they need, often in bulk. That excess continues at home, experts say. Many Americans cook portions that are too large. Then they end up scraping uneaten—but still edible—leftovers into the trash.

Food in fridges does not fare much better. Americans eat only about half the meat in their refrigerators, a 2019 study from Ohio State University showed. They eat even less of their fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.

Some of that food is stored improperly, so it spoils faster than expected. Other items end up forgotten in the back. Even food that has not gone bad gets tossed. About 80 percent of Americans throw away food based on “best by” or “use by” dates. But those labels indicate when a product is at its peak taste and texture, not when it is unsafe to eat, explains Jonathan Bloom. He is a food waste expert and author of American Wasteland. “Food usually lasts a lot longer than those dates,” he says, so it is best to rely on your senses to tell whether something is still good.

JollyPopLA/Shutterstock.com

Confusion over packaging dates leads many people to throw away edible food.

Losses at Every Step 

All in all, the average American discards about 238 pounds of food a year, according to ReFED, a nonprofit focused on the issue. But there are losses and waste at every step of the supply chain, experts say. 

Farms regularly dump truckloads of fruits and vegetables that are bruised or misshapen, or won’t stay fresh long enough to be shipped to stores. Sometimes entire fields of produce are left completely unpicked because of worker shortages. Other times, farmers choose not to harvest crops because selling prices are too low to justify the cost of picking and transporting them.

The average American throws out about 238 pounds of food a year. That is according to ReFED, a nonprofit focused on the issue. But losses and waste occur at every step of the supply chain, experts say.

Farms regularly dump truckloads of fruits and vegetables that are bruised or misshapen, or will not stay fresh long enough to be shipped to stores. Sometimes entire fields of produce are left completely unpicked because of worker shortages. Other times, farmers choose not to harvest crops because selling prices are too low to justify the cost of picking and transporting them.

$1,800

Amount the average family of four spends annually on food that is never eaten 

SOURCE: Natural Resources Defense Council

Grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses that sell directly to individuals create even more waste. Supermarkets over-order products to keep their shelves fully stocked. Then they throw away older—but still edible—goods, especially bakery items, produce, and meat, to make room for new inventory. 

In restaurants, portions have ballooned up to eight times larger than the serving sizes recommended by the U.S. government. And less than half of edible leftovers leave in to-go bags, according to data from Cornell University in New York. Schools, hospitals, and other institutions also create food waste—roughly 7 billion to 11 billion pounds of it per year.

Grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses that sell directly to individuals create even more waste. Supermarkets over-order products to keep their shelves fully stocked. Then they throw away older—but still edible—goods to make room for new inventory. Bakery items, produce, and meat get tossed the most.

Restaurant portions are now eight times larger than the serving sizes recommended by the U.S. government. And less than half of edible leftovers leave in to-go bags, according to Cornell University in New York. Schools, hospitals, and other institutions also create food waste—about 7 billion to 11 billion pounds per year.

GgWink/Getty Images

Farmers often forgo harvesting crops whose selling price will not cover the costs of picking and transporting them.

Hidden Costs

The amount of food waste in the U.S. is enough to feed more than 100 million people their full diet every day for a year, Keating says. Nonprofits and individuals around the country—including kids and teens—are working to redistribute restaurants’ and stores’ unused goods to organizations that supply food to those in need. 

But much of the uneaten food still ends up in landfills, experts say, and that comes at a price. As food in landfills decomposes, it produces a greenhouse gas called methane. Excess greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere trap extra heat from the sun, driving up Earth’s average temperature. The resulting climate change is melting sea ice, raising ocean levels, and causing droughts and storms to be more extreme.

Packaging and transporting the wasted food also emits greenhouse gases, scientists say. And producing that food uses nearly one-fifth of the country’s cropland and accounts for 14 percent of all U.S. fresh water use, ReFED data show. “Those resources could have been used for better things,” says Jean Buzby, a food loss and waste expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The amount of food waste in the U.S. is enough to feed more than 100 million people their full diet every day for a year, Keating says. Nonprofits and individuals around the country, including kids and teens, are working to redistribute restaurants’ and stores’ unused goods to organizations that supply food to people in need.

But much of the uneaten food still ends up in landfills, experts say. That comes at a price. As food in landfills breaks down, a greenhouse gas called methane is produced. Excess greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere trap extra heat from the sun. That drives up Earth’s average temperature. The resulting climate change is melting sea ice, raising ocean levels, and making droughts and storms more extreme.

Packaging and transporting the wasted food also emits greenhouse gases, scientists say. And producing that food uses nearly one-fifth of the country’s cropland. It also accounts for 14 percent of all U.S. fresh water use, ReFED data show. “Those resources could have been used for better things,” says Jean Buzby, a food loss and waste expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Courtesy Farmlink

Volunteers with the nonprofit Farmlink Project help donate cases of eggs in Compton, California.

Tackling the Trash 

The U.S. government’s goal is to reduce the nation’s food waste by 50 percent by 2030. That includes lowering the amount of edible trash each American produces to about 109 pounds a year—still more than 2 pounds a week. But changing a whole country’s food habits is not easy, officials say, especially because many people aren’t aware of how big a problem food waste is. 

Understanding exactly how much food is discarded is something even experts struggle with. “It’s really challenging to estimate the amount of food loss when you think how many kinds of food there are, how many places along the [supply] chain there are,” Buzby says. 

That’s why one of the government’s main pushes is to educate consumers about food waste and ways to reduce it. The USDA created the FoodKeeper app, for example, to alert people when their food is going to go bad. And several government agencies have created webpages with information, advice, and even recipes. 

In addition, the government has partnered with ReFED to gather in-depth food waste data. The nonprofit is using the data it collects, as well as advice from industry experts, to help government officials identify which food waste solutions could have the biggest impact. 

The U.S. government’s goal is to reduce the nation’s food waste by 50 percent by 2030. That includes lowering the amount of edible trash each American produces to about 109 pounds a year—still more than 2 pounds a week. But changing a whole country’s food habits is not easy, officials say. That is especially so because many people are not aware of how big a problem food waste is.

Even experts struggle to understand exactly how much food is thrown out. “It’s really challenging to estimate the amount of food loss when you think how many kinds of food there are, how many places along the [supply] chain there are,” Buzby says.

That is why one of the government’s main pushes is to educate consumers about food waste and ways to reduce it. The USDA created the FoodKeeper app, for example. It alerts people when their food is about to go bad. And several government agencies have created webpages with information, advice, and even recipes.

The government also has partnered with ReFED to gather in-depth food waste data. ReFED is using the data it collects, and advice from industry experts, to help government officials identify which food waste solutions could have the biggest impact.

37 million

Total number of cars it takes to release as much greenhouse gases as U.S. food waste does

SOURCE: Natural Resources Defense Council

At the same time, a growing number of U.S. cities have started tackling food waste by collecting compost directly from people’s homes, just like they do garbage and recycling. Food that’s composted releases less greenhouse gases than food rotting in dumps because of the way it breaks down, scientists say. About 5 percent of U.S. food waste gets composted, government data show. 

Six states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont—have made it illegal to send food to a landfill in certain circumstances. “That forces people in the food industry [in those places] to find another way to use all of what they have,” Bloom says. “And if they can’t, it makes them look for a way to compost their food.”

Meanwhile, the world’s 10 largest food retailers, including Kroger and Walmart, have committed to achieving zero food waste within the next few years. That means they plan to reduce, reuse, and recover all the food resources they use instead of discarding them in harmful ways. 

Farmers are also taking action, including by looking for options to use imperfect crops. Some sell “ugly” fruits and vegetables to companies that resell them at a discount (see “Big Ideas to Cut Waste,” below). Others employ concurrent picking, in which the best produce goes in one basket for grocery stores and the rest goes into another basket for food banks. Growers are also working with juice companies to develop more products made from less-than-perfect fruit.

At the same time, a growing number of U.S. cities have started tackling food waste. They collect compost directly from people’s homes, just like they do garbage and recycling. Food that is composted releases less greenhouse gases than food rotting in dumps. That is because of how it breaks down, scientists say. About 5 percent of U.S. food waste gets composted, government data show.

Six states have made it illegal to send food to a landfill in certain circumstances—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. “That forces people in the food industry [in those places] to find another way to use all of what they have,” Bloom says. “And if they can’t, it makes them look for a way to compost their food.”

Meanwhile, the world’s 10 largest food retailers have committed to achieving zero food waste within the next few years. That includes Kroger and Walmart. The retailers plan to reduce, reuse, and recover all the food resources they use instead of discarding them in harmful ways.

Farmers are also taking action. One way is by looking for options to use imperfect crops. Some sell “ugly” fruits and vegetables to companies that resell them at a discount. (See “Big Ideas to Cut Waste,” below.) Others use concurrent picking. That is when the best produce goes in one basket for grocery stores and the rest goes into another basket for food banks. Growers are also working with juice companies to develop more products made from less-than-perfect fruit.

Big Ideas to Cut Waste

How companies around the globe are rising to the challenge of making sure perfectly good food doesn’t get tossed