Food waste weighing down U.S. food system
October 6th, 2014
Lincoln, NE – Itâ€™s a hot summer day outside of Lincoln, Neb., and Jack Chappelle is knee-deep in trash. Heâ€™s wading into rotting vegetables, half-eaten burgers and tater tots. Lots of tater tots.[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/food-waste-part-1.mp3]
â€œYou can get a lot of tater tots out of schools,â€ Chappelle says. â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter if itâ€™s elementary, middle school or high school. Tater tots. Bar none.â€
Chappelle is a solid waste consultant with Engineering Solutions & Design in Kansas City, Kan. Local governments hire his crew to literally sort through their garbage and find out what itâ€™s made of. On this day, heâ€™s trudging through Lincolnâ€™s Bluff Road Landfill.
â€œIn the country you get more peelings,â€ Chappelle explained. â€œYou get more vegetables.â€
A lot of the waste he finds is food. Food from homes, restaurants, stores and schools.
â€œWhen youâ€™re in the city you get a lot more fast food containers with half eaten food in them,â€ Chappelle says. â€œA lot more pizza boxes.â€
Food is the largest single source of waste in the U.S. More food ends up in landfills than plastic, more than paper.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 20 percent of what goes into municipal landfills is food. Food waste tipped the scale at 35 million tons in 2012, the most recent year estimates are available.
The enormous amount of wasted food is weighing on our food system. An incredible 40 percent of the available food supply in the U.S. is never eaten, according to research funded by the National Institutes of Health. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are going hungry and landfills are filling up.
Like paper, glass and other recyclables, Chappelle says the best option is to keep food out of the landfill where it takes up valuable space.
â€œFrom an economics perspective if you donâ€™t throw as much away, the cells donâ€™t fill up as fast so youâ€™re not spending as much money in the operation of the landfill,â€ Chappelle said. â€œItâ€™s directly a cost benefit relationship.â€
An Abundance of Waste
U.S. shoppers have access to more food than ever before. But they are throwing more of it away, uneaten, too.
â€œWe just have so much of an abundance of food that we donâ€™t realize the value of it,â€ said Dan Nickey, associate director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, which works with businesses to cut back on how much food goes into the garbage.
â€œI think itâ€™s part of the culture today compared to when our parents grew up,â€ Nickey said. â€œNow we donâ€™t necessarily look at food as a resource, we look at it as a given.â€
Not everyone can afford to be careless with food. Forty-nine million Americans have trouble putting meals on the table, 1 in 7 American households, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And Nickey says while those families struggle with food security, food waste is weighing down the economy.
â€œForty percent of all the food in this country never makes it to the table at a cost of $165 billion to the U.S. economy,â€ Nickey said. â€œIf we can reduce the amount of food [waste] just think of the amount of money this country can save.â€
Add to the financial price tag the environmental cost. When food decomposes in a landfill itâ€™s sealed away from oxygen. That causes it to release methane rather than just carbon dioxide, which experts say is 20-25 times stronger than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
Food enters the waste stream at every link along the chain of food production.
But Ashley Zanolli, who works on food waste for the Environmental Protection Agency, says donâ€™t overlook what might be coming out of your own kitchen.
â€œOur best estimates are that about 40-50 percent of food waste comes from consumers and 50-60 percent from businesses,â€ Zanolli said.
In other words, almost half of the U.S. food supply never gets eaten and about half of that waste comes from families and individuals.
Zanolli helped create an EPA program aimed at helping families reduce their share of food thatâ€™s wasted called Food: Too Good to Waste. It originated in Seattle, Wash., but there are plans to roll it out nationwide this fall. For now, it is being tested in a handful of cities around the country including Honolulu, Oakland, Calif., and Iowa City, Iowa.
In Iowa City, Sherri Erkelâ€™s family is part of the pilot study, measuring what people are throwing out at home.
On a recent fajita night in the Erkel house, some half-eaten tortillas, picked over beans, onion skins and other scraps went into a plastic container on the kitchen counter. Erkel calls it â€œthe green bucket of judgment.â€
Once a week she weighs what theyâ€™ve thrown out. She hung the plastic liner from a scale and found they had thrown out 4 pounds of food in just a couple of days.
â€œThese arenâ€™t water melon rinds or anything, so thatâ€™s just food on our plate we didnâ€™t eat. So weâ€™ve thrown away 4 pounds of food in two days. (Thatâ€™s) judgment,â€ she said, laughing.
Seeing how much food her family throws away convinced Erkel and her family to take food waste more seriously. She wants to put less food in the bucket so sheâ€™s following some of the EPAâ€™s tips. For instance, her family started planning meals and following a shopping list. They also set aside a shelf in the refrigerator for what needs to be eaten first.
One in seven families in the U.S. arenâ€™t able buy the kind of food sheâ€™s throwing away. Sherri Erkel thinks about her familyâ€™s role in that.
â€œFood production is not an issue,â€ Erkel said. â€œWe produce enough food but weâ€™re throwing away all this food and a mile away people donâ€™t have enough. So thatâ€™s the first step I think.â€
And itâ€™s a step more families will need to take.
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