The Urgent Need to Reduce Global Food Waste

Food waste is a worldwide problem that costs $1 trillion each year and takes a heavy toll on the environment. There is enough food to feed every person on the planet, but somehow, nearly a third of food produced goes wasted and one in every nine people on Earth goes hungry.

According to United Nations research, recovering just a quarter of wasted food could effectively end world hunger. If wasted food was a country, it would be the third largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, behind the United States and China.

In the U.S., recent studies show Americans waste about a pound of food per person per day. The volume of discarded food is equivalent to the annual use of 30 million acres of land, 780 million pounds of pesticide and 4.2 trillion gallons of irrigated water. The food industry, including grocery stores and restaurants, bears a major responsibility to reduce food waste in the United States.

Here are a few ways the industry is working to reduce food waste in the United States and around the world. We encourage everyone to find ways to help with this problem. Every piece helps, regardless of size.

Opportunities and Progress at Grocery Level

In 2016, France became the first nation to pass legislation banning supermarkets from throwing away food. Instead, grocery stores must donate unused food to charity. The measure has already seen positive results: last year, the country wasted about 234 pounds of food per person, earning France the top spot in the 2017 Food Sustainability Index (the U.S. was 21st of 34). More than half of the donations to 5,000 food banks nationwide now come from grocery stores. The country aims to cut food waste in half by the year 2025.

In the U.S., retailers can play a major role in reducing food waste. Supermarkets should take a more environmentally-minded approach when stocking food, rather than an aesthetically-focused one. In the past, grocers’ strict cosmetic standards added up to tons of produce being thrown out before even reaching the marketplace. Retailers such as Kroger have begun embracing the ugly producemovement and in many cases, educating consumers that an unusual shape doesn’t affect taste. Some are also moving away from the practice of oversized displays, which also contribute to waste.

Grocers can also change purchasing and display procedures to reduce the amount of produce that could go to waste in an attempt to avoid discarding food that is approaching the end of its shelf life. A growing number of grocers sell food nearing the sell-by date at a discount, or repurpose it in salad bars or meal kits.

However, the grocery industry still has a ways to go. In April 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity and The “Ugly” Fruit and Veg Campaign rated the 10 largest supermarkets on how they handle food waste. Criteria included how much public information each store shared about food waste, what it was doing to prevent wasted food, and where its discarded food went. No store received an A rating, and only Walmart received a B. However, almost every store surveyed had a food recycling program, and one has a zero-waste by 2025 commitment in place (Kroger).

Restaurants Waste 84% of Unused Food; Huge Opportunities

Restaurants are another major contributor to food waste in the U.S. One 2014 study found that more than 84 percent of unused food is disposed of, about 14 percent is recycled and less than two percent is donated.

We’ve discussed how restaurateurs are raising awareness through efforts like the new James Beard Foundation Cookbook Waste Not: How To Get the Most from Your Food. The cookbook is part of a multi-year Foundation campaign that aims to reduce food waste among culinary professionals and home cooks alike.

According to a new guide about reducing food waste, restaurants save about $8 for every dollar invested in food waste reduction. Restaurants can take a handful of steps to combat the problem, including:

  • Offering consumers multiple portion choices and eliminating the use of trays in self-service settings are both proven to reduce food wasted in restaurants.

  • Restaurants can also design menus with as few ingredients as possible, or repurpose food prep trim such as lemon peels or kale stems.

Foodservice companies such as US Foods provide resources to help managers make sustainable choices for inventory management, menu planning and restaurant operations.

Need for Change in Regulations

Local regulations also need to change to allow restaurants and grocery stores to give leftover food and raw products to food banks and other nonprofits feeding those in need. At the state level, some states offer tax breaks to farmers and other groups that donate food instead of throwing it away. California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont have restrictions around how much food can be dumped in landfills. Similar laws are in the works in Maryland, New Jersey and New York. Federal legislators should update the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Code to include standards on food donation. The Food Code is updated every four years, and many state lawmakers follow its lead when issuing state guidelines.

For their part, several industry associations have collaborated to create the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) to address the problem and reduce the volume of food waste sent to landfills. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association joined together to create the FWRA in 2011.

Food production has the largest impact on our planet of any human activity, so reducing waste is critical. As part of its Global Goals for Sustainable Development Initiative, the UN is striving to cut food waste in half by 2030 and end world hunger, which is the leading cause of death in the world. For these reasons, it’s imperative for everyone, whether in the food industry or a consumer, to do their part in reducing food waste.

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