Reducing food waste has economic, environmental and social benefits

Concerns for environmental and economic costs, hunger and resource conservation increase awareness of food waste.

In recent years, growing concern about environmental and economic costs, hunger and resource conservation associated with food waste have raised public awareness of food loss. This in turn has accelerated public and private efforts to make better use of available food supplies by recovering safe and nutritious food that would otherwise be wasted. That's according to Estimating and Addressing America's Food Losses, a 1997 article in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Review.

Food waste occurs across the food system from the farm, post-harvest, processing, transporting, wholesaling, retailing and the consumers.

Food waste generated by disease, spoilage, restaurant plate waste, and plant and animal material produced during processing are not suitable for human consumption. These are better suited to composting. Other waste can be recovered to be consumed. Examples of waste that can be recovered for consumption are: edible crops remaining in fields after harvest, blemished food, surplus perishable food from restaurants or caterers and surplus packaged foods from retail food outlets.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of food wasted in the United States is staggering. In 2010, more than 34 million tons of food waste was generated, more than any other material category besides paper. Food waste accounted for almost 14 percent of the total municipal solid waste stream, less than three percent of which was recovered and recycled in 2010. The rest, 33 million tons, was thrown away, making food waste the single largest component of municipal solid waste reaching landfills and incinerators.

Gleaning and food recovery/rescue are two strategies commonly employed to help capture food waste otherwise lost. Field gleaning is the collecting of remaining crops from farm fields after mechanical harvesting. Sometimes, it’s not cost effective to harvest a crop and gleaning can help capture useable food. Perishable food rescue is the collection of perishable food from wholesale and retail outlets. Finally, food rescue is the collection of processed or prepared food from the food service industry. For more information, please see the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s on-line resource called A Citizen’s Guide to Food Recovery. Additional information can also be obtained from the USEPA’s website called Food Donation: Feed People – Not Landfills.

To encourage food donations, the U.S. Congress passed the “Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.” This was created to encourage the donation of non-perishable and unspoiled perishable food donations to food banks, soup kitchens, pantries and shelters. The law helps protect companies from liability as a result of their donation.

Reducing food waste is environmentally important as it keeps food out of landfills. It makes economic sense at the small scale, by lowering household food bills and at the large scale by reducing disposal costs for restaurants, processors and farmers. Finally, reducing food waste is socially important when the rescued food is redirected to emergency food providers working to eliminate hunger in our communities.

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