Make zero food waste a national priority


Credit: National Geographic. The groceries in this photo represent the 1.2 million calories wasted annually by a typical American family.

The United States as a country is so awash in abundance that we use 10 percent of the total national energy budget to bring food from farm to fork, only to leave 30-40 percent of the food uneaten — even as nearly 50 million individual Americans grapple with food insecurity. Globally, 2.8 trillion pounds of food is lost or wasted each year—enough for three billion people.

That wasted food rotting in landfills and using up fossil fuels to produce also represents a key source of climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases to cut, not just a lost opportunity to alleviate hunger. In fact, if ranked as a country, the greenhouse gases produced from global food waste would actually rank the third largest in the world, right behind China and the United States.

America does have a national food waste policy to solve this problem, anchored by a formal Obama Administration goal to reduce food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030.

That’s a positive start. Let’s be more ambitious and aim for zero food waste—if not at the national level, then certainly at the state and city levels of government. Several cities, particularly San Francisco and New York City, currently have even broader goals to achieve zero trash sent to landfills, not just uneaten food.

Of course, zero food waste may seem like a formidable target, but the good news is that we have plenty of ideas and measures that we can take to hit it, including—

  • Standardize the systems and standards for measuring food loss and waste and require that measurement throughout the farm-to-fork chain.
  • Require or encourage restaurants, eateries, grocery stores, and other food sellers to donate their unsold excess food rather than throwing it away. Contrary to popular belief, the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects such entities from liability if they choose to donate.
  • Experiment with behavioral nudges; one study found that simply removing food trays from a college dining hall reduces food waste by 25-30 percent per person.
  • Foster new secondary markets for fruits and produce that are blemished but otherwise perfectly fine to eat, or divert them to food banks. In Washington, D.C., celebrity chef José Andrés even held a public feast made of “food waste” that fed 5,000 people.
  • Via the U.S. government, standardize those supermarket labels urging “sell by,” “best by,” and “use by” certain dates, which prompt people to needlessly throw away food.

For more policy ideas and information, see “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” Natural Resources Defense Council (2012) and “One-Third of Food Is Lost or Wasted: What Can Be Done,” National Geographic (2014).