Americans Waste Way Too Much Food At Home. Here's What Can Be Done.

"No matter how organically or sustainably we grow our food, if we don’t eat it, it’s a waste of resources."

10/29/2015 05:02 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016
Credit: Peter Dazeley via Getty Images
Americans don't eat about 40 percent of the food they produce, and much of that waste takes place in consumers' households.

If there’s an issue in the food world that’s hotter right now than whether restaurants should eliminate tips, one just might be the matter of waste.

In recent months, a number of major grocery stores around the world have announced their plans to help cut food waste; legislation creating the first-ever national policy on the matter is in the works; and the USDA and EPA last month introduced their first joint plan to combat waste.

But what hasn’t been grabbing headlines has been action on the issue of the place much of the food is actually getting tossed -- in our own kitchens. Americans end up throwing out about one-quarter of the food they buy and about 97 percent of that waste ends up in landfills, contributing to greenhouse emissions. At the same time, there are nearly 50 million food-insecure Americans who are going without.

Enter Dana Gunders, a staff scientist specializing in food and agriculture at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Gunders’ new book, Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, serves as a toolkit to help the everyday consumer reduce the amount of food that goes uneaten in their home. It features meal planning, shopping and food storage tips -- and even recipes.

The information all has one thing in common, Gunders says -- an attempt to remind Americans of the inherent value of food due to the massive amount of energy, water and work that goes into its production.

HuffPost recently spoke with Gunders about how a number of easy, fast and cheap strategies could make a big impact on America’s food supply today.

HuffPost: In this book, you’re focusing on food waste in households. Why did you decide to tackle this issue from that vantage point?

There are really three answers to that question. The first is that consumers are responsible for a huge portion of the food that’s getting wasted. I think of the book as information and inspiration. It has very specific information that can help you figure out how to store your tomato or whatnot. It also describes a mindset and a way to go about managing your food and a mentality I hope people will adopt. I’m trying to impact directly the food wasted in households.

The second reason is that a lot of the waste happening in the food industry, in grocery stores and restaurants, is happening because they’re trying to keep their customers happy. In trying to get this information out to consumers, I’m also hoping to really bring some social license to the restaurants and grocery stores so they can do things a little bit differently and waste less food themselves. Out here in California where I live, you are starting to see signs popping up on restaurant tables saying, "Because of the drought, we won’t bring you water automatically, but we will if you ask." I similarly could envision restaurants saying, "We won't bring you bread automatically, but if you want it, please ask because we don’t want it wasted." Things like that change the expectation a little bit and allow them to do things differently. 

The third reason is that consumers are people too. I think reaching people as people can have a great ripple effect in that the people then go to work and are operating in their lives and may be inspired to bring the message of wasting less into their workplace and other spheres of influence, wedding planning or party hosting or whatever it is.

Credit: Aaron Draper
Dana Gunders is the author of Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, a new book intended to give consumers the tools they need to waste less food at home.

 

You mentioned in the book that people might look at you a bit differently when you start doing these things, like packing up leftovers from an office lunch. Is that from personal experience?

Yes! That brings up a whole other point that really right now it’s very socially acceptable to waste food and that I think the real answer ultimately is going to be having it be less socially acceptable to do so. I could walk down the street and throw out half a sandwich on the sidewalk and people would think I was crazy, but throwing it in the garbage is no big deal. Turning that paradigm around is an important part of the solution.

You also pointed out that food waste is far more common today in the U.S. than it used to be, that we waste 50 percent more food today than we did in the 1970s. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s a combination of things, of course, but certainly the growing portion sizes are part of the issue. With portion sizes growing so much, one of two things are happening to those extra calories: We’re eating them and that’s leading to problems in the obesity category, or we’re not and they’re being wasted.

I also think there’s a time and convenience issue that’s come to the forefront as we have more households where everyone is working. Even in a single household or roommate situation, everyone is working and doesn’t always have time to make dinner. People are going out more but not necessarily reflecting that in their purchases always. They want to cook, get to the grocery store, get set up to go, then they get to Wednesday and they’re exhausted. You throw in the frozen potstickers and the fresh stuff you bought gets wasted.

Given that issue of time and convenience, what do you say to people who say the sort of planning and work -- such as composting -- that can contribute to less waste is still too time-consuming for them?

I think the place to start with this are the steps that really are about knowledge and not about time and effort. Just understanding what the expiration dates on food really mean, that they don’t mean you have to throw food away. Similarly, I think storing food properly doesn’t take a lot of time. In the book I made it really easy and accessible to just look up whatever food you’re storing and find the best way to do it. You’re already putting it in the fridge so to put it in a plastic bag is not that big of a time commitment.

Also there are different decisions to be made. Maybe you’re deciding between something you have and something you’re in the mood for. Making that decision to eat whatever you have even if you’re not exactly in the mood for it that evening, those are the kinds of things that add up. Freezing food is also very low time and effort. Hopefully these sorts of things get people in the mindset that those strategies that do take a bit more time and effort feel worth it at some point.

Do you think more people are beginning to realize that adopting some of these strategies is worth that extra effort?

I’m very optimistic. I’ve been working on this issue for four or five years at this point and I have been blown away by how much it does resonate with people. I know that people care and know that they don’t want to be wasting food. I think what’s been missing in some ways is a wake up call not just that this is happening but also to get specific information about what they can change in their lives. I don’t think it’s hard. It also really can result in eating better, fresher, higher quality food if you do it well. I don’t see why this wouldn’t work.

If there was only one key tip that you hope readers will take away from reading your book, what do you hope that would be?

One common subject I try to get across is that when you’re shopping that is really where you’re committing to food. It’s a really important intervention point in the whole waste picture. One of the things I recommend doing is, right before checking out, to look in your cart and make sure you know when you’re going to eat that food. If you can’t figure out the time during the week when you’ll eat it, maybe it’s not the best thing for you to buy or the best time for you to buy it.

I like to say that no matter how organically or sustainably we grow our food, if we don’t eat it, it’s a waste of resources.

 

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, they explore the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

 

Also on HuffPost:

Food Waste: What You Can Do
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