From farm to fork: The social and environmental impact of food waste in the United States

Maya Valluru/Staff

Related Posts

Every year, nearly 40% of food produced for human consumption in the United States is wasted or lost. This disposal of edible food occurs at every stage of the food supply chain — beginning with the farm and ending at the fork. This reflects an unsustainable food system that has rippling social, economic and environmental impacts on communities.

The United States culture of constant consumption conceals the means by which goods, including food, are produced. So, it’s easy to forget the amount of labor, energy and resources that go into the food we consume. The production of food requires large amounts of water, land, money and energy (often delivered by unsustainable fossil fuels). Worst of all, when food is wasted, so are the resources invested into the production, manufacturing and transportation of that food.

Solving unsustainable food systems isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s a humanitarian one. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that if 15% of food wasted each year was rescued, it could feed nearly 25 million individuals annually. This is crucial considering that approximately 40 million people experience food insecurity, amounting to one in eight individuals going hungry, in the United States.

Food is many times lost during harvesting, production and distribution — before food retailers ever see it. This often takes the form of discarding “imperfect” produce with bruises or deformities because manufacturers are incentivized by profit and consumers generally refuse to purchase blemished produce.

These unsustainable practices continue once the food reaches its destination at food retailers and restaurants. Retailers often dispose of food with approaching expiration dates, but these dates generally do not reflect the food’s actual shelf life.

A report by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council examined the relationship between food waste and the deregulation of food expiration dates. Manufacturers can largely self-determine sell-by dates that impact how retailers and consumers consume food. This results in the unnecessary disposal of billions of pounds of edible food in the United States.

Manufacturers can largely self-determine sell-by dates that impact how retailers and consumers consume food.

On the consumer level, individuals in the U.S. throw out nearly 25% of the food they bring into their homes. This amounts to a whopping 20 pounds of edible food wasted every single month. This waste is a result of individuals’ attitudes and behaviors that unknowingly perpetuate unsustainable food systems. Often waste occurs due to poor planning of meals and grocery shopping. As a result, people often buy or cook more food than they actually need. At the same time, individuals often lack information on how to store food and proper food safety guidelines. For example, nearly 90% of individuals in the U.S. prematurely dispose of food due to misunderstandings about sell by dates.

This waste of resources has drastic impacts on the environment and compounds on the global growing climate crisis. In 2017, the EPA found that more food was thrown out into combustion sites and landfills than any other material. When food ends up in landfills and decomposes, it creates methane, a harmful greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change. The greenhouse gases that result from food waste produce the equivalent amount of 37 million cars. Our culture must address food waste as it contributes to climate change.

As we address the environmental impacts of food waste, we cannot forget the social impact on communities across the United States. Food insecurity is a national issue — every single county in every single state has individuals struggling to feed themselves. In the Bay Area nearly 800,000 people face food insecurity, with the largest amount living in Alameda County. According to Feeding America, approximately 12% of Alameda’s population struggles to afford food. This widespread struggle to pay for food is happening alongside rising housing costs.

In our homes, every person can make a difference to correct unsustainable food practices that harm our communities. This involves changing our relationship to food to reinforce sustainable practices and behaviors. Simple steps like making a grocery list of foods needed, planning meals ahead, storing produce correctly and consuming older foods and leftovers first can reduce waste. If you have leftover produce, try freezing fruit for smoothies or using vegetable ends to make stock. In the long run, these practices could end up saving you money — on average, a family of four disposes of $1,600 dollars worth of food each year.

While these small changes can make an impact, it’s important to recognize the larger structures that must change.

While these small changes can make an impact, it’s important to recognize the larger structures that must change. Almost five years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency partnered to create a goal to halve food waste by 2030. Yet the United States is nowhere near reaching that goal. How is it possible that the most wealthy country on earth continues to waste food while millions go hungry?

A part of the problem is toxic ideals of American individualism tied with the prioritization of business above all else. Capitalism not only incentivizes businesses to waste food, it forces individuals to be viewed as objects and numbers. This dehumanization of human beings has allowed for rampant homelessness, food insecurity and poverty to persist. Our system centers profit over human lives, turning basic necessities such as housing and food into commodities. American culture blames food insecurity and poverty on the individual rather than the system.

What doesn’t help is a federal government that deprioritizes the needs of the most marginalized. Nearly 36 million individuals are served by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which supports low-income Americans’ access to food. On average, each individual on SNAP receives about $126 per month — $1.40 per person per meal. Last year, the Urban Institute found that SNAP benefits aren’t enough to pay for the cost of a meal in the majority of states. And rather than expand these needed programs, President Donald Trump has tried to toughen SNAP requirements. His administration plans to cut $4.2 billion over five years, which will cut off almost 750,000 people from the life-saving program.

Every single individual deserves to have access to food regardless of country of origin. Access to food and shelter are basic needs for every person —  not just the privileged who can afford them. Our culture must radically change to value the basic needs of all individuals. In order to do this, we must address how food connects all of us, or in our case, disconnects us. The waste of edible food is destructive to the health of our communities and environment. If we want to have a thriving, just and sustainable world, we have to revolutionize our food system.

Contact Kaitlyn Hodge at [email protected].