Hixon Notes: Food Waste in America

Note: Every month, the Hixon Center will lead off discussion on our monthly theme with an overview of the subject. April 2016 will be focused on food waste—read the article below, written by the Hixon Center’s Director, engineering professor Tanja Srebotnjak, to learn more about our topic.


Treasure trove of wasted foodFew environmental issues generate so much widespread agreement yet have persistently escaped any real progress than food waste: nobody really intends to throw away the groceries they buy every week. That’s like throwing away money! Precisely. Yet, 40 percent of the food grown in the United States these days goes uneaten. That’s approximately $165 billion annually or $1,411 per household. [1,2]

This is not only wasteful for our wallets and in terms of the labor it takes to grow, harvest and distribute our food, it also has substantial implications for our energy, water fertilizer and pesticide consumption. Up to 10 percent of total energy and 80 percent of freshwater are used in U.S. food production, with obvious implications for climate change and water resource management. [1]

The tricky thing about food waste is that it happens cumulatively and generally outside of the public’s eye. Food losses occur along the full life cycle of the food chain, starting in farming, post-harvest packing and continuing with processing, distribution, retail, and finally households.

If you thought the invention of refrigeration and “use by” dates should have put an end to food waste, you might be disappointed to hear that both have contributed to the opposite. In fact, food waste has grown rather than declined since the 1970s and Americans are among the most wasteful nations on the globe. Knowing that we can keep food edible for longer time periods can result in more food being bought than needed, some of which we will then inevitably end up in the landfill rather than on our plates. In addition, “use by,” “sell by” and similar dates stamped on food products are confusing to interpret with respect to food safety guidelines and lead to billions of pounds of perfectly fine foods being thrown away each year.

Research has shown that lack of awareness and information are two of the drivers contributing to America’s food waste crisis. We simply don’t talk much about the slightly browned banana or the cup of yogurt we threw away this morning. Indeed, nine out of 10 Americans needlessly throw away food because they believe it’s no longer safe or attractive enough to eat. [3]

Luckily, research and advocacy are catching up and show us how we, equipped with a few simple facts and tips, can live less wasteful lifestyles [1]:

Steps to reduce your waste of food and money

  • Shop smart by planning meals ahead, using shopping lists and avoiding impulse and bulk purchases. Although on a per ounce basis, bulk items may be cheaper, if they are perishable, letting some go to waste may mean we effectively paid more for them than if we had bought smaller sizes.
  • Know the meaning of “best by” and other expiration stamps:  They are not federally regulated and generally refer to the manufacturer’s estimated peak quality dates. Excluding baby foods, most foods can be safely consumed after their “sell by” and “use by” dates.
  • Buy imperfect produce and fruit: less than picture perfect does not mean inferior in taste or nutritional value. In fact, production for visual attractiveness has led to losses in nutritional value in many fruits and vegetables over the past few decades.
  • Appropriately size meals and freeze unused ingredients and leftovers. Portion calculators can help estimate the amount of food needed for larger gatherings and freezing leftovers keeps them fresher for longer than the fridge.

[1] Gunders, Dana (2012) “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill (PDF),” NRDC Issue Paper, August 2012 IP:12-06-B.
[2] United States Census Bureau (2016). “Quick Facts: United States.”
[3] NRDC and Harvard University Food Law and Policy Clinic (2013). “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America (PDF),” NRDC Report R:13-09-A.