In 2015, 42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, yet Americans still toss nearly 40 percent of the nation's food supply. The country spends an astounding $218 billion annually growing, processing and transporting food that never gets eaten. While it's clear that all this wasted food could feed millions, no one has ever calculated the nutritional value of these wasted foods — until now.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently concluded that if all the food Americans wasted could be recovered, it would provide 84 percent of the adults in the United States with a daily diet of 2,000 calories and an abundance of much-needed nutrients that many people lack. The study, published in the May 2017 edition of the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that in addition to wasting life-sustaining calories, Americans are throwing away copious amounts of dietary fiber, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A and D, among other nutrients. Perishable foods such as fruits, vegetables and seafood, which are often high in nutritional value and relatively low in calories, are thrown away at higher rates than other foods.
"Our research highlights the fact that we're tossing those nutrients out, despite the fact that our health depends on them," Roni A. Neff, a co-author of the study, says in an email. "That's why we wanted to look at the amounts of nutrients we're landfilling. We as a population have some significant nutritional gaps. For example, we don't get enough iron, fiber, vitamin D or calcium."
Wasted Food Is Wasted Nutrients
Take dietary fiber, for example. Fiber is a carbohydrate that cleans the digestive tract of excess fats. Most men and women do not get enough fiber in their diets, yet we throw away enough that would provide 74 million women, or 48 million men, with their daily minimum requirement.
Although the study does not link wasting food with ill-health effects caused by nutritional deficiencies, Neff, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, says "we do not know for certain that people's nutrient intake would improve if they wasted less." However, she continues, "it's likely that the nutritional status of many food pantry clients would improve if they had access to more fruits and vegetables, with the amount of benefit depending on the amount they ate."
According to the study, food wasted by consumers and retailers contains on average, among other nutrients, 1,216 kcal, 146.4 grams of carbohydrates each day; 32.8 grams of protein; 286.1 milligrams of calcium; and 308.3 micrograms of vitamin A.
"This study is a wakeup call," Neff says. "We're throwing away our money and a vast quantity of great food that could benefit us."
The study underscores the health, economic, cultural and social implications of wasting food. According to Feeding America, a hunger advocacy group, 72 billion pounds (32 billion kilograms) of food is lost just in production, manufacturing and distribution. An additional 54 billion pounds (24 billion kilograms) is wasted by individual households. Food manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants toss an additional 52 billion pounds (23 billion kilograms), while 20 billion pounds (9 billion kilograms) of fruits and vegetables are discarded on farms. An astounding 21 percent of all landfill space in the United States is taken up by food waste.
Time for Change Is Now
There are many reasons the U.S. throws away so much food, including losses in production, handling, storage, processing, packaging and distribution. Consumers and food retailers share the blame, too. For one thing, people and restaurants often prepare too much food that goes uneaten as leftovers. Unsold fruits and vegetables are routinely tossed by grocery stores. People also throw away food if the "best before date" on the label has expired. And farmers toss fruits and vegetables for being "cosmetically imperfect" out of fear they won't sell.
In 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a goal to cut food waste in the U.S. by 50 percent by the year 2030. To that end, several groups, including Harvard University's Food Law and Policy Clinic, Food Policy Action and other organizations have been making recommendations to achieve that lofty goal. A large-scale campaign to educate consumers about ways to reduce wasted food, for example, has the potential to divert 584,000 tons (529 metric tons) worth $2.65 billion of food from landfills.
In May 2017, the Food Law and Policy Clinic published a report outlining details on how Congress can take action to reduce food waste in the 2018 farm bill, the largest piece of food and agriculture-related legislation in the United States. "It is estimated that recovering just 30 percent of the food that goes to waste in the U.S. could feed all the food insecure Americans their total diet," the report says. The top three recommendations include standardizing the "sell by," "best by" and "use by" dates on food labels, which are currently regulated by the states; providing funding to schools to educate children on the best ways to reduce food waste; and launching a national food waste education and awareness campaign.