Americans waste about a third of the food they buy, hurting climate and consumers’ wallets

By Brian E. Roe, The Ohio State University

You saw it at Thanksgiving, and you’ll likely see it at your next holiday feast: piles of unwanted food – unfinished second helpings, underwhelming kitchen experiments and the like – all dressed up with no place to go, except the back of the refrigerator. With luck, hungry relatives will discover some of it before the inevitable green mold renders it inedible.

U.S. consumers waste a lot of food year-round – about one-third of all purchased food. That’s equivalent to 1,250 calories per person per day, or $1,500 worth of groceries for a four-person household each year, an estimate that doesn’t include recent food price inflation. And when food goes bad, the land, labor, water, chemicals and energy that went into producing, processing, transporting, storing and preparing it are wasted too.

Where does all that unwanted food go? Mainly underground. Food waste occupies almost 25% of landfill space nationwide. Once buried, it breaks down, generating methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Recognizing those impacts, the U.S. government has set a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030.

Reducing wasted food could protect natural resources, save consumers money, reduce hunger and slow climate change. But as an agricultural economist and director of the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative, I know all too well that there’s no ready elegant solution. Developing meaningful interventions requires burrowing into the systems that make reducing food waste such a challenge for consumers, and understanding how both physical and human factors drive this problem.

Consumers and the squander sequence

To avoid being wasted, food must avert a gauntlet of possible missteps as it moves from soil to stomach. Baruch College marketing expert Lauren Block and her colleagues call this pathway the squander sequence.

It’s an example of what economists call an O-ring technology, harking back to the rubber seals whose catastrophic failure caused the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. As in that event, failure of even a small component in the multistage sequence of transforming raw materials into human nutrition leads to failure of the entire task.

MIT economist Michael Kremer has shown that when corporations of many types are confronted with such sequential tasks, they put their highest-skilled staff at the final stages of production. Otherwise the companies risk losing all the value they have added to their raw materials through the production sequence.

Who performs the final stages of production in today’s modern food system? That would be us: frenzied, multitasking, money- and time-constrained consumers. At the end of a typical day, we’re often juggling myriad demands as we try to produce a nutritious, delicious meal for our households.

Unfortunately, sprawling modern food systems are not managed like a single integrated firm that’s focused on maximizing profits. And consumers are not the highly skilled heavy hitters that Kremer envisioned to manage the final stage of the complex food system. It’s not surprising that failure – here, wasting food – often is the result.

Indeed, out of everyone employed across the fragmented U.S. food system, consumers may have the least professional training in handling and preparing food. Adding to the mayhem, firms may not always want to help consumers get the most out of food purchases. That could reduce their sales – and if food that’s been stored longer degrades and becomes less appetizing or safe, producers’ reputations could suffer.

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Three paths to squash the squandering

What options exist for reducing food waste in the kitchen? Here are several approaches.

  • Build consumer skills.

This could start with students, perhaps through reinvesting in family and consumer science courses – the modern, expanded realm of old-school home economics classes. Or schools could insert food-related modules into existing classes. Biology students could learn why mold forms, and math students could calculate how to expand or reduce recipes.

Outside of school, there are expanding self-education opportunities available online or via clever gamified experiences like Hellman’s Fridge Night Mission, an app that challenges and coaches users to get one more meal a week out of their fridges, freezers and pantries. Yes, it may involve adding some mayo.

Recent studies have found that when people had the opportunity to brush up on their kitchen management skills early in the COVID-19 pandemic, food waste declined. However, as consumers returned to busy pre-COVID schedules and routines such as eating out, wastage rebounded.

  • Make home meal preparation easier.

Enter the meal kit, which provides the exact quantity of ingredients needed. One recent study showed that compared to traditional home-cooked meals, wasted food declined by 38% for meals prepared from kits.

Meal kits generate increased packaging waste, but this additional impact may be offset by reduced food waste. Net environmental benefits may be case specific, and warrant more study.

  • Heighten the consequences for wasting food.

South Korea has begun implementing taxes on food wasted in homes by requiring people to dispose of it in special costly bags or, for apartment dwellers, through pay-as-you-go kiosks.

Two bins marked with cartoons and colorful graphics showing what they collect
Kiosks for collecting food waste in Seoul, South Korea. (Revi/Wikipedia, CC BY)

A recent analysis suggests that a small tax of 6 cents per kilogram – which, translated for a typical U.S. household, would total about $12 yearly – yielded a nearly 20% reduction in waste among the affected households. The tax also spurred households to spend 5% more time, or about an hour more per week, preparing meals, but the changes that people made reduced their yearly grocery bills by about $170.

No silver bullets

Each of these paths is promising, but there is no single solution to this problem. Not all consumers will seek out or encounter opportunities to improve their food-handling skills. Meal kits introduce logistical issues of their own and could be too expensive for some households. And few U.S. cities may be willing or able to develop systems for tracking and taxing wasted food.

As the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine concluded in a 2020 report, there’s a need for many solutions to address food waste’s large contribution to global climate change and worldwide nutritional shortfalls. Both the United Nations and the U.S. National Science Foundation are funding efforts to track and measure food waste. I expect that this work will help us understand waste patterns more clearly and find effective ways to squelch the squander sequence.The Conversation

Brian E. Roe, Professor of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, The Ohio State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  1. Are these the same Americans as the ones whining about high food costs this year?

    Kind of makes a rational person think. Don’t it?

  2. After 35 years, this year I emptied my compost bin. It contained 1 wheel barrel full of nice black organic soil and an ant nest.

    Composting is Rocket Science level thinking to most whining Americans.

  3. From the study itself: “Measuring food waste at the individual household level has been nearly impossible because comprehensive, current data on uneaten food do not exist. By using food acquisition data, this article employs a new approach to estimating household-level food waste via a stochastic production frontier model in which food waste is identified as input inefficiency.”

    In other words, it’s more guilt-inducing b.s. than real science. But if you don’t believe me, look up
    “stochastic production frontier model.” Good luck.

  4. The chart of sources of food “waste” is so wrong I don’t know where to start. “Unharvested” food isn’t “wasted.” It’s simply plowed back into the soil to feed the soil biology and serve as nutrients for the next crop. Additionally, why isn’t the crop harvested? In most cases it is because the farmer has to make certain he has enough of a given crop to meet his contract. In order to do that a tomato farmer may plant 25 acres “extra” just in case something goes wrong with the main crop. At 25-50 tons of tomatoes per acre that equals a LOT of “wasted” food, but it necessary and doesn’t hurt anything. Most “wasted” food simply spoils before it can be eaten. In suburban settings residents could treat their food waste as bokashi, which they could simply bury in their yard where it would break down, without producing methane, and fertilize their grass or shrubs. The only way that “wet” food cannot be wasted is to preserve it for the future, which most people aren’t interested in, especially when you consider you can purchase canned produce for less money than you can make it yourself. The bottom line of food waste is the bottom line. Americans pay too little for the food they eat for farmers to make a decent living that allows them to properly care for their soils.

  5. I am curious as to the impact of government regulation of food waste especially before it gets to the consumer.

  6. We have zero waste off the whole chickens we purchase – the carcasses are pressure cooked for 90 minutes, yielding lovely bone stock and the bones are fed to our dogs as add-ones to their kibble. We bulk purchase meats and repackage and freeze to 2 to 3 meal portions (cook once, eat two or three times). We stock up on storage stable winter squash in the fall and eat them as carbs along with dried legumes and pulses all winter long. Keep a nice herb garden going year round to augment. Don’t do processed foods beyond steel cut oats and we do our own bread baking – a loaf every week to 10 days suffices – kept fresh with ascorbic acid and sour dough starter. Not much dairy in the house beyond plain yogurt. Greens are eaten fresh daily and we braise nice collards, mustard, dandelion and turnip greens and freeze them in meal size quart bags when we come across nice produce. Nope. Not much food waste here. No need to purchase “Meal kits” here. Go ahead and try to tax us on food watste. We don’t waste enough to allow for vermiculture – which would be useful for fishing if we could feed some great big old night crawlers.

  7. One great way to reduce food waste is to educate the consumer about the Best Buy dates on dry grocery. Just because it is past the date doesn’t mean it is unsafe. It may not taste as fresh, but still consumable.

  8. That’s what’s nice about having a big dog that loves human food leftovers… It really cuts down on the dog food purchases, too!

  9. What a dumb misinformed article. What s novel idea, teach home-ec and consumer science in school. Well, they used to before the wacked out progressives and news media told everyone that gay trans groomer shit was more important to teach little Johnny and Jill.

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