Reducing Food Waste While Feeding the Hungry

By Carol Dreibelbis

According to a report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) last year, 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. Americans throw away about US$165 billion worth of food each year—or about 9 kilograms of food per person each month—which then ends up in landfills, where it accounts for about a quarter of U.S. methane emissions.

Americans throw away about 9 kilograms of food per person per month, which ends up in landfills, where it accounts for roughly a quarter of U.S. methane emissions. (Photo Credit: Frank Pascual)

The NRDC’s farm-to-fork-to-landfill report makes clear that Americans not only eat more than other nations, but they also waste more. In fact, the average American wastes 10 times as much food as the average Southeast Asian. While one in six Americans is food insecure, only 60 percent of the nation’s food is consumed. The report also points out that reducing food waste by just 15 percent would save enough food to feed more than 25 million people annually.

As of November 2011, American schools are fully equipped to do their part in both cutting food waste and feeding hungry people. While food donors who give to food pantries and food banks are protected from all liability under the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, recent legislation went a step further by explicitly protecting public schools that donate unused food. Now that schools can donate food without risk, they are free to put their unused food to good use.

Schools of all kinds are answering the call for food donations. Dranesville Elementary School in Herndon, VA implemented a new donation program in March of 2012 to donate unopened cafeteria food to local shelters and food banks. Previously, the school cafeteria threw away about 12.25 kilograms of food each day. Many colleges and universities also have food donation programs through their volunteering or civic engagement programs. Student volunteers at Princeton University pick up unused food from campus dining halls several times each week and deliver it to a local soup kitchen.

The efforts of these and other schools can be an effective way to tackle two pressing issues at once—food insecurity and food waste. And as the NRDC report explains, limiting food waste also saves energy, land, and water.  According to the report, “getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States.”

According to the NRDC, “The U.S. government should conduct a comprehensive study of losses in our food system and set national goals for waste reduction; businesses should seize opportunities to streamline their own operations, reduce food losses, and save money; and consumers can waste less food by shopping wisely, knowing when food goes bad, buying produce that is perfectly edible even if it’s less cosmetically attractive, cooking only the amount of food they need, and eating their leftovers.”

While these are all important changes, many of them will take time. In the meantime, donating unused food, as public schools are now encouraged to do, will enable communities to begin reducing food waste while also feeding the hungry.

How does your home, school, business, or group reduce food waste? Let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program. 

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