American households waste nearly a third of their food, study finds

Study author: ‘Programs encouraging healthy diets may unintentionally lead to more waste.’

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To the rest of the world, Americans are often thought of as excessive and wasteful in their eating, and overall consumption, habits. A recent study is lending some credence to that belief. According to research led by agricultural economics professor Edward Jaenicke of Penn State University, the average American household wastes nearly a third of its food.

The value of that waste is estimated at $240 billion annually. When divided among the 128.6 million American households, that’s an average of $1,866 being wasted per household on a yearly basis.

Jaenicke says all that wasted food has far-reaching consequences, and negatively impacts overall American health, food marketing, climate change, and food security.

“Our findings are consistent with previous studies, which have shown that 30% to 40% of the total food supply in the United States goes uneaten — and that means that resources used to produce the uneaten food, including land, energy, water and labor, are wasted as well,” Jaenicke says in a university release. “But this study is the first to identify and analyze the level of food waste for individual households, which has been nearly impossible to estimate because comprehensive, current data on uneaten food at the household level do not exist.”

Researchers used methodologies from production economics and nutritional science to calculate the amount of uneaten food by American households. More specifically, Jaenicke and his team analyzed data mostly from the 4,000 households that participated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS).

Data from FoodAPS also included participants’ biological data, allowing the research team to use nutritional science formulas to calculate the metabolic rates and energy required for household members to maintain their body weights. The researchers then calculated the difference between the amount of food acquired by each household and the amount needed to maintain body weight. This difference represented the production inefficiency in the model, ultimately indicating the amount of uneaten, wasted food.

“Based on our estimation, the average American household wastes 31.9% of the food it acquires,” Jaenicke says. “More than two-thirds of households in our study have food-waste estimates of between 20% and 50%. However, even the least wasteful household wastes 8.7% of the food it acquires.”

The researchers also used demographic data collected during part of the survey to analyze fluctuations in food waste among different households. They found, for example, that higher-income households generate more waste on average. Households with healthier diets that include more perishable vegetables and fruits also tend to waste more food.

“It’s possible that programs encouraging healthy diets may unintentionally lead to more waste,” Jaenicke explains. “That may be something to think about from a policy perspective — how can we fine-tune these programs to reduce potential waste.”

Lower-income households, particularly those using food stamps to supplement or provide their foodstuffs, waste less food. Houses with more inhabitants also waste less food.

Researchers also noted that grocery stores selling particularly large servings of food are contributing to the waste problem. Additionally, it was noted that households regularly using grocery lists to shop, and those that have to travel farther than others to reach a grocery store, wasted less than average.

Reducing food waste is another way to reduce greenhouse gases and limit the damage of climate change.

“According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, food waste is responsible for about 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas annually, which would be, if regarded as a country, the third-largest emitter of carbon after the U.S. and China,” Jaenicke says.

The study is published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

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Ben Renner

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