It could be said that 2016 was the year that food waste, as an issue, went mainstream. Today, grocery stories, startups, packaging companies and local governments are all making moves to tackle this challenge. But it is in the hands of consumers – who are responsible for 43 percent of food waste in the U.S. – where the greatest potential for change lies.
One of the groups at the forefront of the food waste issue is Oakland, California-based Food Shift, which was founded in 2012. Back then, few understood just how big of an impact food waste has on both the economy and the environment.
"In order to talk about solutions, we had to get people to understand the problem," said Dana Frasz, founder and director of Food Shift. She points to the Natural Resources Defense Council's 2012 report as being the catalyst that got people engaged on this issue. But it still took years of hard work, education and awareness before we could begin to focus on solutions.
Today, the facts are all too clear. We throw away, or waste, over 40 percent of all food in the U.S. – 70 billion pounds a year -- and the global figure tops a billion tons.
Because the majority of the world lacks adequate municipal composting systems, most food waste ends up in landfills, where it decomposes slowly and emits potent greenhouse gases. In fact, if global food waste were a country, it would be the world's No. 3 emitter.
This, of course, is also an opportunity. If we can quickly reduce food waste, we can seriously cut global greenhouse gas emissions. And the power is, quite literally, in our hands.
In the past four-plus years, we've seen incredible momentum on this issue. From the ugly fruit and veggie movement, to startups utilizing previously landfilled food, to Food Shift's Alameda Kitchen. The kitchen, a social enterprise, processes fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be wasted into soups and other foodstuffs for the local community, while training formerly homeless individuals in culinary skills.
Good practices by major actors – and better policies, such as food labeling standards or proper portion packaging -- matter greatly. But the daily choices consumers make in their kitchens matter just as much.
"Forty-three percent of all food waste is happening in the home," Frasz told TriplePundit. "There's a huge opportunity for us eaters to become more aware about how to purchase our food, plan out our meals, and learning how to store our food better."
There's an economic angle as well, Frasz added.
"The average family of four in the U.S. is spending $1,500 to $2,200 a year on food they waste." If that money were, say, saved for college tuition, it could help play a positive role in a family's well-being. There is also opportunity here in training workers to participate in a food recovery industry, which would prevent food waste and also provide well-paying jobs.
So, where do we start? The best time is right now, because the holiday season in particular can be one of excess. This is when we gather for large meals with family and friends. We often overcook, and unless leftovers are properly managed, far too much of it ends up in trash cans.
Part of the challenge is education. Most households just do not know how to manage food quantities properly because in America we weren't taught how. Throwing away food was considered acceptable for decades, and producers even packaged food, or labeled it, to promote waste.
Today, there are several guides and tools to help consumers better learn about their role in preventing food waste at home (we've included a few tips below). Technology is also helping us better manage our fridges and pantries. Apps can now help consumers keep track of what's in their kitchen – and when it might spoil. Love Food Hate Waste takes this a step further, providing recipes based on what and how much of any ingredient you have in your kitchen, helping you make delicious dishes with food that might otherwise go to waste.
We've made incredible progress in turning food waste into a mainstream issue. Let's ensure that 2017 is the year we began to make measurable progress on ending food waste.
Tips for reducing food waste in your home:
Want more tips? Check out Food Shift's handy guide, or these ones from the Environmental Protection Agency and NRDC.
Image credit: Pixabay
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.