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.