What a waste: why now is the time to address our food waste problem

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By Graham Salinger                

Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, wants everyone to know that wasted food is a growing problem in the United States that impacts both food security and the environment. But he doesn’t want to beat people over the head with his appeal for people to stop wasting food.

In the United States more than 34 million tons of food is wasted annually. (Photo credit: Evan Sung, The New York Times)

His blog, Wasted Food, covers everything related to food waste- from the role that consumers and restaurants play – to productive ways that people can use every part of a vegetable. He even asks  his readers what their favorite food waste related songs are, his is the Black Lips’ Dumpster Dive. “In my blog I try not to be too heavy handed,” he explained in a recent interview. “I want to communicate to people that everyone has a role in reducing food waste so that I can spread the word and so that people who read the blog start changing their behavior, and hopefully their efforts start rubbing off on other people.”

Mr. Bloom began researching food waste in 2005 after doing volunteer work at the D.C. Central Kitchen, an experience that awakened him to the impact of food waste. “On a fundamental level it doesn’t make sense to me that we waste so much food when so many other people have trouble getting food,” he emphasizes. “There is a fundamental incongruity in that, which needs to be addressed,” he says. He estimates that as much as 25 percent of the food we bring into our homes is wasted. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that an estimated one-third of the food produced worldwide for human consumption is wasted annually. “On the big picture level, the biggest challenge is to get people to see that food waste is a problem” Mr. Bloom continues. “For so long it has been seen as the cost of doing business and families have seen food waste as something that just happens.”

Mr. Bloom says that there is a significant opportunity for households to reduce their food waste.  But he points out that getting consumers to change their behavior continues to be an uphill battle. “Getting people to step back and see food waste for what it is and then change their behavior is a challenge because it means getting people to buy less food, which is easier said than done,” he explains.

In addition to its impact on food security, food waste also has consequences for the environment. In the United States more than 34 million tons of food is wasted annually. Much of this food waste ends up in landfills where it produces methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Mr. Bloom hopes that his blog will help others think about food waste in environmental terms. “Ninety seven percent of food waste ends up in landfills where it is harmful to the environmental because it produces methane” he says. “I try to get people to divert food waste away from landfills by whatever means they can.” He suggests donating leftover food to food banks, which have recently been reporting a shortage of donations, or using food waste for compost.

Food waste, which has increased 50 percent since 1974, also comes at a significant economic cost. The average family of four throws out an estimated 1,350  dollars worth of food annually.  U.S. supermarkets throw away around 30 million pounds of food every day. Mr. Bloom, who gives talks to chefs and restaurant servers, says that while it’s easy for restaurants to understand the economic cost of food waste, there remains pressure to get customers to order more food than they need. “There is a little bit of tension when I talk about getting costumers not to waste food. If you are a server that would mean encouraging people to buy less food,” which would mean a smaller bill and less tips. “Most chefs don’t want their food to be thrown out, my job is to communicate to them the ethical, environmental, and economic costs of food waste” he says.

Through his work on American Wasteland and his blog, Mr. Bloom has noticed that more people are starting to understand why food waste is a problem. “I have seen a shift in the way that food waste is being discussed,” he noted. “It’s a long time coming, but people are starting to realize that something must be done to address the fact that so much food is wasted”

Graham Salinger is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

To read more about reducing food waste, see: Reducing Food Waste during the Holiday Season, Reducing Food Waste: Making the Most of Our Abundance, Fresh Ideas for Food Waste, and Innovation of the Week: Reducing Food Waste.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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