Why Do Americans Waste So Much Food?

Yesterday, the environmental lobbying group the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a new report, Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. The press release for the report notes:

The average American consumer wastes 10 times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia, up 50 percent from Americans in the 1970s. This means there was once a time when we wasted far less, and we can get back there again. Doing so will ultimately require a suite of coordinated solutions, including changes in supply-chain operation, enhanced market incentives, increased public awareness and adjustments in consumer behavior.

Of course, per capita annual incomes in Vietnam are $1,500 and in Thailand, $5,000. And Vietnamese households spend 57 percent of their budgets on food. The Bureau of Labor Statistics looked back over a century at American family budgets and reported that in 1919 families spent 36 percent [PDF] of their budgets on food. In fact, Americans were spending that percentage of their budgets on food as late as 1947. As Americans became wealthier that portion fell to 29 percent in 1966; 23 percent in 1979, and 18 percent in 1998. Most recently, Americans average just 12 percent of their budgets on food both consumed at home and out at restaurants.

The NRDC report does recognize the reality...

...that food represents a small portion of many Americans' budgets, making the financial cost of wasting food too low to outweigh the convenience of it...

Cheap, available food has created behaviors that do not place high value on utilizing what is purchased. As a result, the issue of wasted food is simply not on the radar of many Americans, even those who consider themselves environment- or cost conscious.

The NRDC evidently does not understand trade-offs, and thinks that farmers, food processors, grocers, are not motivated by profit to cut waste. So their report naturally recommends a plethora of government interventions. For example:

Reducing food loss in the United States should be a national priority, starting with the establishment of clear and specific food waste reduction targets.

All things being equal waste is bad, but the question that is unaddressed by the NRDC report is how much time and resources will be "wasted" through diverting them from other activities to cut food wastes? I fear that the "logic" of the NRDC report will eventually end in food taxes as way to make it a bigger part of family budgets in order to "incentivize" Americans into Southeast Asian frugality.

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  • Tim||

    Food taxes to fund the department of food science and it's army of food investigators.

  • Tim||

    Who will produce reports that find dessert to be the least wasted food type and then propose federal regulations to make restaurants serve it first.

  • ||

    Something tells me that 40% number is bullshit.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Do they count the food we defecate in that figure?

  • ||

    I hope not. Because Warty shits a lot.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Actually, speaking of Warty, I realized my question was incomplete. Do they count food that we defecate and regurgitate? Really, any food that we fail to metabolize or store as fat?

  • ||

    I break three toilets a day, dude. Fucking low-flow bullshit.

  • o3||

    u mean like corn und those weird looking lettuce pieces?

  • Tim||

    Corn: the subsidy you poop.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    I think the average fast food place probably approaches this number.

  • $park¥||

    I'll bet they count every ounce of crap you trim off certain products to make them edible.

  • Joe R.||

    I blame the "St. Louis Cut" on ribs, which is a waste of perfectly tasty spare ribs.

  • $park¥||

    Whenever I make some butternut squash about half the thing ends up in the garbage just so I can get the usable part out. Same with sweet potatoes.

  • The Hammer||

    Sweet potatoes? What part of those aren't edible? I just slice them end to end, wrap them in foil, throw some butter and brown sugar in and toss them on the grill.

  • robc||

    Sweet potatoes? What part of those aren't edible?

    All of it.

  • Pro Libertate||

    What? That's un-American.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Sweet potatoes are great and great for you.

  • Pip||

    Yes. Wrapped in foil and grilled are great. No need for butter or sugar. Just a hint of salt.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I can eat them plain, but I like a little butter. Not a lot, just a little.

    Marshmallows are an abomination. Yes, I'm talking to you, little brother!

  • CampingInYourPark||

    "Yes. Wrapped in foil and grilled are great."

    Never understood the point in wrapping something in foil on a grill. Isn't it the same as using an oven?

  • Rasilio||

    No, they are disgusting, they are sickley sweet and mushy, almost as bad as sticking an entire spoonful of corn syrup in your mouth.

    Even smelling them literally makes me gag

  • Dr. Frankenstein||

    Yes they're good for you. For that reason I wish could stand them, I can't.

  • $park¥||

    I generally peel them then section them. Throw them in the oven with some butter and brown sugar and prepare for deliciousness. I don't use marshmallows but I have used maple syrup a few times.

  • ||

    I suspect that most of that 40% is the food thrown out by growers/suppliers before it ever reaches the grocery stores due to spoilage or damage. Of course the NRDC's implication is that fat Americans are serving up more than they can eat in a single meal just tossing their leftovers in the garbage.

  • mr simple||

    Even if it were the latter, I fail to see a problem. Food isn't being diverted from people who need it to rich fat cats who are wasting it. Land isn't being used for wasted food growth that could otherwise be utilized to feed some other population. Their implications reek of socialist problem mongering.

  • wareagle||

    you are using logic which never works when activist groups are trying to make a point, a point buttressed by a statistic the group knows will never be checked and, in fact, may be impossible to verify. These folks point to wasted food in service to a larger goal. And the goal has nothing to do with improving nutrition.

  • Tim||

    Really, are bananna peels wasted food? Peach pits? Chicken bones?

  • Rasilio||

    Chicken bones are, you use them to make Stock.

  • wareagle||

    I don't get that either. The stat is accepted as gospel even though it comes from an interest group. I'm tempted to answer "fuck you, that's why" but it makes me sounds like a govt hack.

    Maybe part of the waste is the bullshit cafeterias and other places try to force on people that goes uneaten and rots. For all we know, these folks are counting the garnish many restaurants put on dishes.

  • Rasilio||

    In this case it probably is, however it would not be terribly difficult to use standard BEA and similar numbers to get a rough estimate of the food that gets wasted.

    Just measure how much food is delivered to market by the growers and the average caloric intake for the country and you could very quickly get an estimate of how many calories worth of food were being thrown away each day.

  • $park¥||

    Reducing food loss in the United States should be a national priority, starting with the establishment of clear and specific food waste reduction targets.

    Fuck off, slaver?

  • WTF||

    Bingo.

  • robc||

    No need for a question mark.

    Commit to it.

    And the big question they dont answer: Why should it be a national priority, considering the low amount we are spending on food and the fact that we have more than enough?

  • The Hammer||

    According to whores like the SPLC and NRDC, EVERYTHING should be a national priority as long as they are in charge of it.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    Another shrill cry from a lobbying group spending it's time searching for problems for gov't to fix. Hard to imagine that.

  • mr simple||

    Wastes according to whom? Are there food shortages in this country? Are there people going hungry strictly because someone else is throwing out leftovers? This seems like a completely made up problem so someone can get more government money (stolen through taxes).

  • WTF||

    Children are starving in Africa, you know. Which is why we need to divert corn crops to make ethanol so..oh, wait...

  • mr simple||

    Scarcity is only a problem if you're a greedy capitalist pig-dog.

  • $park¥||

    Nah, they just send over all the horrible school lunches the kids won't eat. Come to think of it, that may be a good chunk of that 40%.

  • WTF||

    I fear that the "logic" of the NRDC report will eventually end in food taxes as way to make it a bigger part of family budgets in order to "incentivize" Americans into Southeast Asian frugality.

    The 'Penaltax', is there anything it can't do?

  • SugarFree||

    Reducing food loss in the United States should be a national priority, starting with the establishment of clear and specific food waste reduction targets.

    Here's to the bold new future of sneaking out into the backyard under cover of night to bury that half of a cabbage that went brown before you got around to making stir-fry again in order to evade your weekly trash can inspection.

  • Tim||

    Wait, yes, wasn't backyard composting a good (and Liberal!) thing to do until, like, five minutes ago?

  • ||

    Yes indeed. Oh, the fun of watching competing nanny statist impulses!

  • Scarcity||

    Pediction: this study excludes composted waste. Because now the solution is mandatory composting!

  • Atanarjuat||

    Prediction: SugarFree invents a horrible new definition for the word "pediction".

  • SugarFree||

    I'm not a trained monkey.

  • SugarFree||

    I am very untrained.

  • robc||

    That explains most of the food I throw away.

    Buying ingredients when you are single and like variety is hard. I like a salad every now and again, but I cant get thru a head/bag/bundle of lettuce before it goes bad.

  • Scarcity||

    You need salad spin bags! Keeps salad fresh up to 5x longer!

    (Legal notice: this is not a request. Stop wating salad comrade.)

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/produ.....utterer-20

  • robc||

    How is that different from any other airtight plastic bag?

  • SugarFree||

    It costs more! Innovation!

  • Pro Libertate||

    It isn't.

    By the way, waste is a strong word. Anything we call "food" can be consumed by insects, scavengers, and bacteria. What about their rights?

  • Scarcity||

    I've never bought them, just remembered seeing them somewhere so I can't speak from experience. Based on what I understand about lettuce and such, they should be slightly pourous. If you store salad in a tupperware it keeps longer if the lid is loose.

    In other words, dry your lettuce, put it in a bag and don't zip it all the way closed. Sorry, salad spin bag-makers.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Destroying entire industries during a recession is bad for the economy.

  • Scarcity||

    Mine is only a suggestion for the downttrodden. Monocle-wearing types will still flock to the convenience of not having to worry about half-zipping their salad bags. Win-win.

  • Zeb||

    Washing and drying the lettuce and then wrapping it in dry paper towels works well too for making it last. You don't want it to dry out, but want to avoid condensing moisture.

  • SugarFree||

    Zeb's suggestion also works for herbs as well. I can keep cilantro and pareley for two, sometimes three, weeks.

  • Rasilio||

    Actually if you want to keep leafy greens fresh for a fairly long time here is how you do it.

    1) Wash the greens thoroughly in COLD water
    2) have a clear clean section of a table or counter about 3 foot long and roll paper towles down it but do not tear off the roll
    3) Take the leaves out of the water and shake them off till they are slightly damp
    4) Lay them out on the towel so that the leaves do not overlap
    5) when you reach the end of the paper towel fold the roll back over the leaves
    and continue laying leaves on this new layer of towel
    6) Repeat until you have 3 or 4 layers of leaves (or you run out)
    7) Roll a final layer of paper towel over the leaves and tear off the paper towel roll
    8) Now take the entire structure and roll it up into a cylinder and place into a zip top bag, it will be too tall to seal the bag so don't try.
    9) Place another zip top bag over the other end and wrap a rubber band around the middle and store in the Crisper drawer of the fridge.

    Stored like this you can keep leafy greens fresh, crisp, and edible for literally up to 2 weeks.

  • Scarcity||

    And you've also quadrupled the cost of your lettuce.

  • Rasilio||

    How so? A roll of paper towels costs $1, to wrap an entire head of Romaine this way would take about a 3rd of the roll. Plus 2 zip top bags (which would be reusuable) that cost about $0.10 each and you're looking at around $0.50 worth of storage material. A head of Romaine costs well over $2.

    I would certainly not recommend doing this with cabbage or iceburg lettuce but then I wouldn't normally worry about wasting half a head of either of those anyway.

  • Fluffy||

    If you click the link and then read the girl's other blog posts, it becomes apparent that she considers "wasted" food to be (for example)

    1. The stale, broken potato chips at the bottom of the bag that you don't eat if you've got a better snack available.

    2. The stale end of a sub sandwich that you don't save and bring home to put in your fridge because by the time you get around to eating it, it will be inedible.

    3. Apples at orchards that fall to the ground and get damaged before they can be harvested.

    4. Sides and garnishes at restaurants and cafeterias that diners don't eat.

    #4 is especially amusing to me, since Michelle Obama is out there demanding that restaurants and schools redesign their menus to get more vegetables on the plate - which people then throw away because they don't want them. So Government Agency A will demand that McDonald's put gross packaged apple slices in Happy Meals, and then when my kid throws them away as he should since they're gross Government Agency B will fine McDonald's (or hell, maybe me) for "wasting" food.

  • RBS||

    1. The stale, broken potato chips at the bottom of the bag that you don't eat if you've got a better snack available.

    That's best part of a bag of chips, well not when they are stale but otherwise delicious. It's like all flavoring.

  • SugarFree||

    Have you ever had Grippo's BBQ chips? That last part of the bag will murder your whole family with deliciousness.

  • robc||

    Grippos chips are subpar.

    However, the fries seasoned with Grippos spice at Hammerheads are awesome.

  • SugarFree||

    Of course the chips are sub-par. That's why they dowse them in such a thick coating of the delicious coating.

  • RBS||

    If they are truly heavily seasoned they sound awesome. I hate chips with little to no seasoning. If I wanted a bland snack I'd eat something healthy.

  • robc||

    They are not bland.

    I just prefer my chips salted, but the grippos spice on fries rock.

  • RBS||

    WTF is Grippo's?

  • robc||

    Its a bbq spice.

    Or, I guess, its a chip company but the only good thing they make is the spice. A friend of mine who now lives in Dallas was in town earlier this week, she is taking a bunch of bottles of the spice back.

  • Scarcity||

    Drive now to a former confederate state, and stop in to the first non-major-chain grocery you see; gas stations usually work, too. You must try.

  • robc||

    Except Texas, apparently.

  • robc||

    Also, KY was union.

  • SugarFree||

    Southern Ohio is fairly well-stocked now.

  • robc||

    They are based in Cincy.

  • SugarFree||

    That's what I get for not reading the bag.

  • robc||

    That's what I get for not reading the bag.

    I wonder what Scarcity's excuse is gonna be.

  • Scarcity||

    I'm from KY, live in Chicago now. I don't see Grippos very often except when I'm back to visit family in the Bluegrass. I am aware KY was not Confederate; it was a sloppy, shorthand comment. I repent.

  • RBS||

    Drive now to a former confederate state, and stop in to the first non-major-chain grocery you see; gas stations usually work, too. You must try.


    Interesting, I live in South Carolina and have never seen or heard of them.

  • SugarFree||

    If you do find Grippo's, try the Hot Dill Pickle chips as well. Warning: Do not eat in an enclosed area.

  • SugarFree||

    Regional chip company. The BBQ chips also make an excellent breading for chicken strips.

  • The Hammer||

    I miss Bob's Texas-Style Jalapeno chips...

  • tarran||

    If I ever became omnipotent, every person who says "There oughta be a law" will be slapped 20 times per instance immediately with a green-lantern-style magical hand.

    IF it's important enough, they'll persist despite the pain. Busy bodies, on the other hand, will eventually be trained to keep their fucking hands to themselves and mouths shut.

  • $park¥||

  • Scarcity||

    3. Apples at orchards that fall to the ground and get damaged before they can be harvested.

    Gaia is such a wasteful bitch.

  • Rasilio||

    with #4, I don't know whose kids are wierder but all 5 of my kids prefered anything BUT the fries at burger joints until just recently (one of my 10 year olds has decided he prefers fries) and none of that was at my wife or my urging.

  • Tim||

    IS this the same group that criticizes industry for combining waste like chicken lips and cow anus into "pink slime"?

  • The Hammer||

    Different group. This is the same group that criticizes industry for pretty much everything else, though.

  • Zeb||

    It's my fucking food, I can do what I want with it. ANd I hate leftovers. I'm trying to convince my wife to get and even smaller refrigerator than we already have so that we have even less space to fill up with leftovers which I will throw away in a few weeks when they start to smell.

  • Christ on a Cracker||

    Cheap, available food has created behaviors that do not place high value on utilizing what is purchased.

    What kind of morons don't know that 'cheap' and 'available' go with 'low value'?

  • Romulus Augustus||

    Some jurisdictions have laws that don't let restaurants donate leftovers. Every business lunch buffet I've been to in recent years has tons of leftovers, whole cakes, trays of chicken breasts, etc. {They must think everyone eats for two.) I remarked to a waiter that they must eat well on the leftovers and he said he isn't allowed to take it home and the hotel isn't allowed to donate the leftovers, so they toss it all in the dumpsters.

  • RBS||

    ^This. Insanity.

  • Spoonman.||

    The waiters aren't allowed to take it home? That's terrible.

  • Rasilio||

    Similarly I was quite pissed off the first time I saw a Deli Counter worker toss the end of a ham into the trash.

    The only place I have ever lived where that was not SOP (and apparently it was some sort of health ordinance enforcing it) is here in Massachusetts at Market Basket where they specifically sell the ends as a lower cost product and they are perfect for things like use in salads where you want the meat cubed and not sliced.

    I suspect that a very large portion of the overall waste is very specifically created by health regulations.

  • Atanarjuat||

    Just because they are putting it in dumpsters doesn't mean people aren't eating it.

    I imagine the "unintended" consequence of the law was to demean homeless dudes by reducing them from quietly taking a foil tray half-full of food sitting by the back door to quietly dumpster diving for said foil tray.

  • BakedPenguin||

    This reminds me - I need to finish off the wilting celery and near-expiration hummus I have in the fridge. Also, I need to pick up some Beano.

  • Rich||

    Meh. Wasted food pales in comparison to wasted sunlight.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Excellent point. And what about neutrino waste?

  • SugarFree||

    Yeah. It's like we built that 600 light-year-thick lead barrier in order to catch them for nothing.

  • Pro Libertate||

    We waste trillions of neutrinos a second in the U.S. A second.

  • OldMexican||

    "The average American consumer wastes 10 times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia"


    "They waste it on themselves! Why don't they just die so we can then proceed to point out how much food a person from Southeast Asia wastes compared to someone who lives in the Kalahari desert?"

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Somebody may have already proposed this, but I suggest we mail all our food scraps to the NRDC.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    adjustments in consumer behavior

    What if the consumer doesn't want his behavior adjusted?

  • Old Johnnie Goggabie||

    Why Do Americans Waste So Much Food?

    Did anyone else read this headline and immediately think of Michael Valentine Smith?

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