Reduce, recover and recycle are the words the U.S. Department of Agriculture is using to drive a newly launched campaign to slash the estimated 30% to 40% of food that ends up being wasted. Tied at the federal level to Environmental Protection Agency efforts to reduce the quantity of food dumped on landfills, the campaign has enlisted the support of private sector companies like Unilever and General Mills as well as non-governmental groups like Feeding America, the Food Waste Reduction alliance and Rock and Wrap It Up! Although not directly joined, it is more than coincidence that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is emphasizing the need to improve food systems throughout the world, focusing on reducing waste and improving dietary nutrition.
While the quantity of food, either in America or around the world, that is produced but never consumed is a rough estimate, there is agreement that this waste requires reduction. The F.A.O. places waste at a third of the food produced for human consumption. In the United States where the advanced economy might encourage both less (greater efficiency in production and distribution) and heavier losses (extravagance), the U.S.D.A. places food waste at 30% to 40%, which relates to 133 billion pounds of food that never makes it into stomachs from retail food stores, restaurants and homes. That loss, which omits waste in production, marketing and manufacturing, is valued at $390 per U.S. consumer, equal to a month’s average food outlay.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in hailing the start of what he calls the “U.S. Food Waste Challenge,” declared, “We have the opportunity to better educate folks about the problem of food waste and begin to address this problem.” He cited the plus from E.P.A. cooperation as well as targeting private companies in support. He added that once people understand they are throwing away up to 40% of their food, they will join this effort, not just to assure that food reaches people needing it but to reduce the volume going to landfills where it decomposes to create greenhouse gases. Food makes up the largest volume reaching landfills, it was noted.
While no target has been set for reducing food waste, the language used — “to lead a fundamental shift in how we think about and manage food and food waste” — leaves no doubt about the dimensions of what the U.S.D.A. wants to achieve. When it comes to “partners,” the goals are lofty indeed — 400 partner organizations by 2015 and 1,000 by 2020. General Mills, which proudly notes its role as a founding partner, has made a commitment pointing the way for other food manufacturers. It has established a direct communication link to Feeding America, which is the national leader of regional food banks. It has added capabilities for donating both surplus food ingredients and packaging as well as finished products. These steps, the company says, could save an estimated 30 million pounds of waste annually.
Such positive steps by a single company pales when compared with Economic Research Service estimates that 133 billion pounds were not eaten out of the aggregate of 430 billion pounds of food meant for human consumption in the United States. The waste represents shrinkage during preparation, perishability and loss-related characteristics, consumers’ tastes and preferences and misjudgments about the amount to buy. Each of these items will be addressed through cutting waste in school lunch programs, by educating consumers on how to waste less and conducting research to identify new technologies that would reduce food waste.
Little imagination is required to understand how even minimal success in achieving these goals will bring about fundamental change in the food market. There is no better way to maintain awareness of what is under way than by being a partner. In so doing watch will be kept over how a third of America’s food is processed, sold and consumed, or wasted.