It's a common image this time of year: The horn of plenty overflowing with produce — a symbol of American prosperity and wealth that is most visible in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.
Yet, even in this land of plenty, some 42 million people struggled to find enough nutritious food to eat last year. Meanwhile, an estimated five to six billion pounds of food was left in fields or tossed in landfills to rot.
"We have this crazy paradox of food going to waste yet people going hungry," Feeding America's Ross Fraser said. "Something we lose sight of in America is that food is a finite resource. There isn't just food forever, for all people, anywhere you want it."
Beyond the humanitarian implications of our wastefulness, there are also economic and environmental costs that are becoming increasingly hard to ignore.
Americans waste an estimated $165 billion worth of food each year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That comes out to between $1,350 and $2,275 for the average household of four.
Then, there's the environmental cost.
"The No. 1 item that goes into landfills is food," Fraser said, "and when food spoils and ferments, it turns into methane gas, which is a pollutant."
Methane has a warming potential 21 times that of carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Researchers in the U.K. have estimated that eliminating food waste could have the same impact on emissions as removing one out of every five cars from British streets.
Clearly, then, food waste is a problem. The question is what we are to do about it. Waste happens at every stage of the supply chain, from the field all the way to the landfill. However, the majority of waste happens at the very end of the supply chain, with consumers. With the holidays just around the corner, here are some simple, practical tips for reducing one's food footprint:
It's often said that going to the grocery store on an empty stomach is a bad idea, but going without a plan is even worse. Though meal planning takes an extra investment of time, the benefits — both in terms of money saved and conscience spared – are more than worthwhile. Here are some helpful tips to get you started down the right path.
The so-called "ugly fruit and vegetable" movement — which aims to alleviate waste by convincing consumers to purchase less-than-perfect produce — gained a major victory in July, when Walmart announced it would begin selling blemished apples in 300 Florida stores. By supporting these and other efforts, consumers can drive demand and build larger change in the food system.
Cooking dinner for two? Don't make a casserole that could feed nine. Being thoughtful about portion sizes and not cooking more than you need is another way to avoid waste. Have a recipe you need to scale, but not a mathematician? Check out this useful recipe calculator.
Mind the dates
Nine out of 10 Americans have needlessly thrown away food because they didn't understand the dates on the packaging, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Educating oneself about America's Byzantine date labeling system — and not throwing away perfectly food before it's gone bad — is another step you can take to reduce waste.
Practice safe storage
Much waste can be prevented by simply storing things properly. Placing ingredients in air-tight containers, separating different types of fruit to avoid spoilage or freezing leftovers and excess ingredients are simple, but often overlooked, ways to reduce one's food footprint. For more ideas, check out this useful guide.
Compost before you toss
If you have inedible food waste like eggshells and vegetable scraps, consider composting it instead of tossing it in the garbage bin. Doing so emits far fewer quantities of greenhouse gas. It will also make your garden very happy. If you need a primer on the topic, check out these great resources from the EPA.
Support Your Food Bank
Cleaning out your pantry? Before you toss those canned beets, consider donating them. If you aren't sure where to go, you can find the food bank nearest you by consulting Feeding America's interactive directory.
For more practical tips on how to reduce food waste, visit www.savethefood.com.
Image credit: Circe Denyer. www.publicdomainpictures.net
T.S. Strickland is the founder of Neon Tangerine — a branding, strategy and experience shop focused on food, tech and social good. His writing has appeared in Impact Alpha, Entrepreneur, the Food Rush and elsewhere.