Ray's Garden Rows: Food waste a worldwide scandal

Ray Mueller

I don't like to waste food nor do I do it very often. But it seems I'm probably in the minority on that phenomenon.

It's only been in the past few years that I've given attention to and noticed others doing the same about a statistic that seems staggering — that 30 to 40 percent of the food produced with the intent to have humans eat it is wasted instead before it is consumed. The average American throws out 209 to 254 pounds of edible food per year, well over a half a pound per day.

For livestock feed, farmers get concerned about the losses when they exceed single-digit percentage points. Those losses, which are virtually inevitable, occur during harvesting, transportation and storage.

The waste of human food, which has been substantiated in many ways, including by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, has many dire implications: economic, social and environmental. It's also a tremendous waste of natural resources, such as water, land, seed and fertilizer.

Original awareness

I first became aware of this shocking statistic in 2008 when an article was published on a 10-year research project at the University of Arizona to track food waste. The lead researcher indicated that at least 40 percent of the food that was grown is wasted. At the time, he estimated annual average losses of $590 directly incurred by a family of four and a loss of $43 billion per year within households alone in the United States.

Numerous subsequent published articles and online entries on this topic typically refer to a 30 to 40 percent loss on food that was grown. As recently as September of this year, a Consumer Reports article stated that Americans discarded an average of 52 percent of the fresh produce they purchased along with 50 percent of seafood, 22 percent of meat and 20 percent of milk.

Publicity for the annual World Food Day, which was observed Sunday, Oct. 16, pointed out that on any given day about 800 million humans are undernourished. Based on the current world population, that's a bit over 10 percent compared to the 30 to 40 percent waste of food.

Worldwide implications

Does the frequently documented waste of food bother anyone? It should, especially in light of the predictions by many organizations that food production around the world would nearly have to double by 2050 because of an increase of 2 billion in the world's population from the 7 billion today.

I don't understand those mathematical calculations. Even if they are correct, a great reduction in the waste of food would translate into having little or no need to boost food production.

The latest online information indicates that 1.3 billion tons of food worth $750 billion are wasted world-wide every year — enough to feed hundreds of millions of people. In the United States for 2014, the food waste estimate was 133 billion pounds worth $161.6 billion. Of this, 97 percent went to landfills, while only 3 percent was composted.

One estimate is that within the United States food waste has increased 50 percent per capita since 1974. Another calculation indicates that 28 percent of the agricultural acres in the world are being used to grow food that is wasted.

A reduction of 20 percent, not 20 percentage points, from the most recently estimated 40 percent food waste in the United States would provide enough food for 25 million people per year at a time when one in six Americans is categorized as “food insecure.”

There are many roads to food waste at home - buying too much, cooking too much, eating out a lot, forgetting leftovers and not using your fridge and freezer properly.

Personal experiences

My first attention-getting experience with a waste of prepared food came on a day of KP (kitchen patrol or kitchen police) duty at an Air Force base in Texas. Although they had been refrigerated and were certainly still edible, dozens of pies were discarded that day because an expiration date had arrived. The only redeeming point about that incident was learning that an area hog farmer was picking up the discarded pies to feed his animals.

I have never worked in a supermarket, but they are definitely one source of food waste. I don't know how willing the owner/operators would be to share numbers or volumes, but it would be interesting to ask.

Anyone who has any doubts about food waste stemming from supermarkets need only go to the biodigester at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. It incinerates supermarket, cafeteria and restaurant food wastes to produce heat and electric power for buildings on the campus (about 10 percent of the university's power usage) and city-owned facilities. It was the first anaerobic biodigester of its type installed in the western hemisphere.

I visited there five years ago, shortly after the biodigester opened. It was amazing and disheartening to see the dumped truckloads of discarded vegetables and fruits that were obtained from supermarkets in the Fox Cities area and Oshkosh.

The greatest food waste that I can plead guilty to is with small tomatoes. That happened with yellow and red ones this year and a few years ago. At the occasion about a decade ago, I invited a food pantry to have its clients pick as many tomatoes as they could use, but I was turned down because of client confidentiality rules.

Other observations

Food waste was a topic that John Oliver tackled on his HBO “Last Week Tonight” show within the past year. He examined it from many perspectives.

Video on Oliver's program showed how perfectly edible peaches were left behind in California fruit groves because of slight physical defects. He also interviewed supermarket managers, learning that consumers tend to reject any fresh produce not appearing to be perfect in its physical condition and that it's much easier and less expensive for supermarkets to push discarded produce out the backdoor and toward a landfill rather than distributing it to food pantries.

Consumer rejection of produce not passing a beauty test is being addressed at a few Walmart and Whole Foods outlets, according to a recent report in Time magazine. They're offering odd-looking, misshaped or “ugly” produce such as apples or potatoes at discount prices.

Another major source of food waste is in school cafeterias. U.S. Department of Agriculture rules require that meals have a certain nutrient balance, including items that students should eat but unfortunately choose not to. Who's to blame for that?

Another inherent problem leading to food waste is a misunderstanding of the meaning of “use by” or “best by” dates stated on labels. This does not mean that the food is no longer safe by that date. Only “expiration date” labels should be honored.

Taking action

One institution that has taken notice of food waste is St. Norbert College (SNC) in De Pere, where about 2,200 meals are served per day in a campus cafeteria. A recent article detailed what measures it has taken to cope with food waste and what the results have been.

Since August of 2014, a portion of the cafeteria organic waste has gone to an area farmer to feed livestock while some of the remainder goes to the UW-Oshkosh bio-digester. Food waste was reduced by 44 percent during the first year of the SNC initiative, less than a full garbage bag of waste is headed to a landfill after each meal and about $1,000 is saved per year on landfill tipping fees and emptying of the on-campus trash compactor.

In addition, the dining service that operates the SNC cafeteria donates prepared food to a local food pantry for feeding its volunteers, not its clients. There's a legal restriction on offering prepared food to food pantry clients because it is perishable.

One of the online entries about food waste lists 27 ways on how to reduce it. Another one offers eight steps on how to do it.

Where do you fit on the percentage scale on food waste? Are you below 10 percent, at the average or 30 to 40 or above 50 percent? How much money do you squander on wasted food?

I don't like to waste food, nor do I do it very often. But it seems I'm probably in the minority on that phenomenon.