Talking Trash: Feds Announce Dramatic Goal to Curb Our Food-Waste Crisis

The Obama administration wants to cut the amount of food we throw away in half.

(Photo: Flickr)

Sep 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It seems the U.S. is getting serious about tackling one of the biggest social and environmental problems that most Americans probably don’t even know exists: the staggering amount of food we waste.

Wednesday’s announcement from top U.S. officials that, for the first time ever, the federal government has set a goal for dramatically cutting our country’s food waste isn’t likely to land at the top of your news feed. Especially not when there’s another Republican circus—er, debate—to endlessly parse. But a 50 percent reduction in U.S. food waste over the next 15 years? That’s huge.

Bear with me for a sec. I remember the early seasons of Mad Men, all those scene-setting moments intended to shock our modern sensibilities. Even beyond the endless parade of three-martini lunches, you had parents blithely smoking in cars with their kids, mothers letting their daughters play with dry cleaning bags, no seat belts, etc. But one thing that really stood out was when the Drapers finished a picnic in the park and Betty promptly upended the blanket to let the family's post-picnic trash fly everywhere. They then got in their car and drove away.

Thanks in part to a concerted campaign that included the federal government (remember Woodsy the Owl?), most of us wouldn’t even think of tossing our food wrappers out the car window today. Yet we often don’t think twice about tossing our leftovers in the trash.

True, this is about a lot more than getting regular folks to start reheating that casserole lingering in the fridge—there’s a ridiculous amount of food waste to go around.

When the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Dana Gunders first started working on what would become a landmark report about our collective epidemic of food waste three years ago, she recalled thinking, “These numbers can’t be real, because if they were, everyone would know about them.”

The numbers she found remain mind-boggling: 90 billion pounds of edible food goes uneaten each year in the U.S, according to the USDA. That’s 40 percent of the food in America—yes, 40 percent—equivalent to $162 billion annually, or $370 per person. The costs add up in numerous other ways too. All that food has to be grown or raised, which in turn consumes valuable resources, all for naught—unless you own a landfill. The food we waste guzzles up 25 percent of our water supply while pumping out the equivalent amount of climate-change-causing pollution as 33 million cars.

“At the same time, one in six Americans is food insecure, meaning they do not have a steady supply of food to their tables,” Gunders wrote in a blog post on the new federal goals. “Allowing the waste and hunger trends to coexist has been nonsensical, to say the least.”

As programs already launched by the federal government to reduce food waste attest, there’s work to be done at all levels. The U.S. Food Waste Challenge, a joint program by the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency, is providing a way for businesses and organizations across the food chain to share best practices on ways to stop trashing so much food.

As Gunders points out, the target to reduce our food waste by 50 percent “is an American goal, not just one for our government. To truly achieve these targets, we will need all hands on deck.”

“That means the food industry—restaurants, cafeterias, grocery stores, food distributors, farmers—will need to look for opportunities to reduce waste within their operations and throughout their supply chains," she continued. “And so will you and me. In fact, individuals and households are responsible for somewhere between one quarter to one half of all the wasted food out there. That’s more than any other part of the food chain.”

The farm-to-table ethos that revolutionized the way many of us think about what and how we eat by making us more conscious—and conscientious—eaters could very well prove to be the stepping-stone here. After all, if we’ve come to think of food as something of value in our lives, why in the world wouldn’t we think twice before just throwing it away?