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By Robert Giblin
Up until recent times, the weekly ritual of planning meals played itself out in homes across the country. Meals were painstakingly thought out. Moms clipped coupons from the Thursday night paper and carefully planned the weekly grocery shopping trip.
At meal time, everyone at the table was expected to be a member of the “clean plate club.” Even the family dog might happily do its part, cleaning up table scraps. Leftovers were packed as lunches or eaten at other meals later in the week. Little went to waste.
Lifestyles have changed dramatically and so has the amount of food waste we generate. Numerous experts have proclaimed the need to double the world’s food supply in the next 40 years to meet a growing population and changing dietary demands. However, because of food waste, doubling the food supply actually will require tripling production from fewer resources.
According to a report issued in January by the UK-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers, “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not,” up to half of all food produced goes to waste.
Waste occurs at all levels of the food chain, from production, to harvesting, transportation, processing, retailing and restaurants and by consumers.
The UK report echoes studies previously released by other organizations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Various sources show that a lot of food is produced but never consumed in North America and Oceana – nearly 40 percent of grain products, half or more of seafood, fruits and vegetables, and one-fifth of meats and milk.
The good news is that because of ever-improving farming practices, very little of that loss is in farming and production in the U.S. – just 2 percent of grains, 11 percent of seafood, 20 percent of fruits and vegetables, 3 percent of meat and 3 percent of milk. Higher losses in fruit and vegetable production are due to retail, restaurant and consumer expectations of perfection; nutritious, safe and “tasty but ugly” produce never leaves the field.
The consumer side is another story: 27 percent of grain products, 33 percent of seafood, 28 percent of fruits and vegetables, 12 percent of meat and 17 percent of milk go to waste in the U.S.
The UK report says that as the development level and per capita income of a country increases, the food loss problem generally moves further up the chain, toward consumers. Thus, the U.S. is among the most efficient and least wasteful in farming and production, but the most wasteful at the consumer end.
Further, close to 20 percent of the U.S. food supply is lost in households, restaurants and foodservice. In restaurants, portion sizes have increased dramatically over the past 30 years. Yet, on average, diners leave 17 percent of meals uneaten and half of all leftovers are not taken home.
At home, U.S. families throw out one quarter of the food they buy. Yet every day, about one in six people – 50 million people – in the U.S. are “food insecure.” Reducing food losses by just 15 percent could feed half of them.
Fortunately, small changes can yield big payoffs. Analysts estimate that reducing food waste can help the average family of four find an extra $1,350 to $2,275 annually. That’s a nice bonus in tough economic times.
For consumers, reducing waste does not mean major dietary changes, guilt or doing without. It starts with little steps: meal planning, small reductions in portion sizes, taking home and eating restaurant leftovers, accepting slightly imperfect produce and storing and cooking with an eye toward reducing waste.
Reducing waste in the food system is a continuous improvement process, involving cooperation and efforts at all levels. It also requires education, but not from a formalized program. It may be as simple as asking mom or grandma, “How did you used to do this?”
Robert Giblin is an occasional contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series for American Farm Bureau Federation. He writes, speaks and consults about agricultural and food industry issues, policies and trends.