Hungry Eyes – Why Americans Waste So Much Food?

October 26, 2021 |

By Shannon Bergstrom, Sustainability Brand Manager, RTS

Special to The Digest

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the amount of perfectly edible and nutritious food that goes to waste in the US. And, by now, you’ve probably heard the shocking numbers. Americans waste about 40%, or around 80 billion pounds, of all the food they produce in one year.

So, why is there so much food waste in the US?

From Farms to Homes: Where Do We Waste Food the Most?

Good and edible food gets discarded at every stage of the food chain, on farms, during processing and distribution, in stores, and in restaurants and homes.

On farms, food loss happens because farmers plant more than consumers demand, and crops get damaged due to bad weather, pests, or diseases. Next, more food gets lost at manufacturing and processing facilities through trimming off edible portions (skin, fat, crusts, etc.), product damage, and technical problems. There are also problems with short shelf life and poor refrigeration at the transportation stage.

However, when the food actually reaches the retail stores, that’s where the real waste begins. Stores usually overstock, discard seemingly too unappetizing fruits, vegetables, and “damaged goods,” and make oversized packages. Moreover, they lose food due to expired “sell by” dates, insufficient staff, or overstocking seasonal or unpopular foods.

When the food finally reaches our plates, the waste process continues further. In restaurants, portions are oversized, and menus have too many options.

But it may come as a surprise to learn that households are the biggest culprits. In fact, more than 40% of all food waste comes from consumers themselves. If you are wondering why we waste so much food at home, some of the reasons include food spoilage, overbuying, over-preparing, confusion over labels, and poor planning.

So, if we know all that, it should be easy to take some steps to resolve the issue of excessive food waste, right? And yet, why do we see so little improvement?

Careless and Carefree: Reasons Behind Food Waste

Thanks to the numerous campaigns, talk shows, and articles, public awareness about food waste is slowly growing. But as humans, we tend to be a bit irrational about food, buying too much, or throwing away food solely because of our quirks. Moreover, our busy schedules and stressful lifestyles don’t always allow us to plan our grocery shopping and meals as we should.

Here are a couple of reasons that shed some light on why we waste so much food at home.

1.   We Don’t Really Understand Labels

“Best by,” “Sell by,” “Use by,” and other date labels don’t actually mean the same thing. However, most Americans just assume that the date printed on the package means that the food is no longer safe to eat and decide to throw it away. Therefore, confusion over labels leads to people throwing away $161 billion worth of good and edible food per year.

2.   We Are Not Aware of How Much Food We Throw Away

The Natural Resources Defense Council conducted a study on food waste. They found that as many as 76% of Americans think they throw away less food than an average person. This number shows that we are not aware that we are also a major part of the problem. Therefore, we need to become more conscious of our own food waste and implement some lifestyle changes to lessen it.

Although most people will compost if such an option is available, their efforts usually stop there. Surprisingly enough, one study has found that those who resort to composting their food waste, generally do not become more aware of the amount of waste they create. On the contrary, they stop worrying about it.

3.   We Have the Wrong Information or Quirks Regarding Food

Every household, or better yet, every person, has different eating habits. For some, pizza or bread crust is inedible. For others, bananas and apples with dark blotches on them are not acceptable.

It doesn’t seem like much, but think about how much perfectly fine food we just throw away for no good reason.

4.   We Feel the Need to Overstock

A full fridge is a sign that we can provide for our family, and that makes us feel good. So, running out of juice or cereals is not an option. And that’s how we end up hoarding the groceries that expire before we get to consume them.

But this is not entirely our fault. Everywhere we go, we find abundance displayed. Just think about grocery stores with the pyramids and shelf after shelf of products.

Also, our plates, appliances, and cookware are unnecessarily large. To prove our point, try to remember how many times you’ve forgotten about the food in the back of the fridge or a cupboard and found it too late.

5.   We Don’t Plan Realistically

Finally, when we go grocery shopping, we make unrealistic plans with the fruits and vegetables we buy. Of course, we really mean to make that healthy salad for dinner later this week. But schedules change, we don’t feel like cooking, and it’s quicker to order take-out.

Furthermore, we cook too much and convince ourselves that we will eat it later. But if we don’t make eating the leftovers a priority, they will probably spoil. Moreover, not having a weekly meal plan or not sticking to it can cause overbuying and food spoilage, whether it is leftovers or forgotten food in the fridge.

So, to reduce the amount of food waste we make, maybe we could try creating meal plans ourselves or using one of the meal planning apps and websites.

The Bottom Line

In the end, is there something we can do about food waste? Maybe the solution is to become mindful of our eating and shopping habits. Moreover, we can educate ourselves on the food labels and how to recognize if the food has really turned. That way, we can reduce food waste, one household at a time.

Author Bio 

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability brand manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices.


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