Food Waste in the U.S. and Efforts Toward Reduction

Those of us fortunate enough to turn down our least favorite veggies growing up heard some version of the seemingly non-sequitur dinner table threat, “Finish your food. There are kids all over the world who will go to bed hungry tonight.”

With age, wisdom and recent awareness campaigns in the United States, however, the issues of food waste and food insecurity are all too real to ignore. An estimated 15.8 million U.S. households (or 12.7 percent of all households in the country) are food insecure, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. This equates to about one in eight Americans — many of them children — without reliable access to affordable and nutritious food.

Meanwhile, 52.4 million tons of food per year are sent to landfills according to the collaborative nonprofit, ReFED, formed in 2015 to seek solutions that reduce U.S. food waste. This loss represents $218 billion a year, or 1.3 percent of gross domestic product, that is spent growing, processing and transporting food that is never eaten.

Food waste refers to any food that is grown and produced for human consumption but is ultimately not eaten. By USDA standards, this can happen anywhere along the supply chain, from farms, food manufacturers, consumer-facing businesses — such as grocery stores and restaurants — and in consumers’ homes.

Perfectly edible food is trashed each day as new shipments come in.

An Addressable Issue

Driven to solve this vast discrepancy between food waste and food insecurity, the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency announced the United States’ first-ever national food loss and waste goal, calling for a 50-percent reduction by 2030, and several organizations nationally and locally are beginning to find ways to help meet that goal.

In its recent report, Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste, the first ever national economic study and action plan driven by a multi-stakeholder group committed to tackling food waste at scale, ReFED says the issue of food waste is addressable and shows an achievable path to a 20 percent reduction of food waste within a decade through 27 solutions that would divert 13 million tons from landfills and on-farm losses.

USDA and EPA intend to work in partnership with charitable organizations, faith organizations, the private sector and local, state and tribal governments to reduce food loss and waste, ultimately improving overall food security and conserving our nation’s natural resources.

Initiatives underway for food loss and waste reductions include the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, launched in 2013 to provide a platform to assess and disseminate information about the best practices to reduce, recover, and recycle food loss and waste. The U.S. Food Waste Challenge calls on entities across the food chain — farms, agricultural processors, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, universities, schools, and local governments — to join efforts to

  • Reduce food waste by improving product development, storage, shopping/ordering, marketing, labeling, and cooking methods.
  • Recover food waste by connecting potential food donors to hunger relief organizations like food banks and pantries.
  • Recycle food waste to feed animals or to create compost, bioenergy and natural fertilizers.

By the end of 2014, the U.S. Food Waste Challenge had over 4,000 participants, well surpassing its goal of 1,000 participants by 2020. USDA is working to grow this list and expand food loss and waste reduction efforts from farm to fork.

Simultaneously, the nonprofit, ReFED, seeks to unlock new philanthropic and investment capital, along with technology, business, and policy innovation, which is projected to catalyze tens of thousands of new jobs and recover billions of meals annually for the hungry. The effort will also reduce national water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Spent grain from brewing an IPA at Strong Rope Brewery, NY. Photo courtesy of RISE!

Local Businesses ‘RISE’ to the Occasion

Meanwhile, in New York, companies such as food tech start-up RISE and its partner breweries and bakeries are working toward food waste reduction at the manufacturer level by “upcycling” spent grains.

Through its proprietary technology, RISE repurposes barley, a by-product of beer production, to be used as nutritious flour. RISE not only promotes zero-waste and high quality ingredients, but also brings breweries and bakeries together to creatively incorporate unspent flour into sweet and savory treats.

Rise sources its spent grains locally from Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co., Sixpoint Brewery, Threes Brewing, Kings County Brewers Collective, Keg & Lantern and Strong Rope Brewery. RISE flours will be featured in a benefit for Change Food, “RISE Up! Dine with Purpose,” a four-course dinner celebrating sustainability at Rouge Tomate in Chelsea, Monday, July 24 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Tickets to RISE UP! Dine with Purpose Here

RISE flour made from spent grain seen above (photo 2). Flour courtesy of a Strong Rope Brewery IPA! PC to RISE.

Claire Anselmo Keady is a graduate student in the Nutrition Program at Hunter College’s School of Urban Public Health. She also works with the NYC Food Policy Center at Hunter College. She looks forward to reading your feedback at claireanselmokeady@gmail.com.

Change Food is a grassroots movement creating a healthy, equitable food system.​​ To learn more, visit ChangeFood.org. Follow and support us on Patreon.