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The Challenge of Food Waste and Loss & How You Can Help

Some of the compelling images during the coronavirus pandemic have shown massive amounts of produce being plowed under and milk being dumped.  At the same time, people across the nation and world are facing financial hardship, food supply shortages, and grocery purchase limits.  Seeing images of food waste amid scarcity has prompted public outcry.  Yet the issue of food waste is not simple or new.  Seeing food waste at such a crisis point offers us a good opportunity to turn toward the challenge, learn more, and find ways we can help.

Food loss and food waste

The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated in 2011 that one-third of the world’s food was lost or wasted every year.  Food losses are defined as decreases in quality or quantity of food from the time of harvest up to, but not including, retail or food service.  Foods that are diverted into livestock feed or seed production are not considered losses.  Food waste occurs when foods are discarded at the retail, food service, or consumer levels.

Why do we have food loss and food waste?

Causes of food loss and food waste vary among countries and regions.  It’s important to understand the causes in our local area, so we can identify where to focus on solutions.

Food Loss

Food losses can occur on the farm or during distribution.  On-farm losses can be affected by the timing and method of harvest, weather conditions, post-harvest handling, storage, and marketing.  For example, during the coronavirus pandemic, some of our local growers faced losses because purchases from their normal market outlets (restaurants and institutional buyers) sharply declined.  Growers were left quickly searching for new outlets, sometimes competing with foreign produce.  Meanwhile, with produce ready to harvest and buyers not readily available, losses began to occur.  Without funding to pay the costs of harvest and transport, even the prospect of donating produce was not feasible in many cases.

Off-farm losses can occur during transportation, processing, and packaging.  In our country, we have good transportation infrastructure, compared to many developing countries.  However, we lose produce during the sorting process, as fruits and vegetables that are oddly shaped or of sub-optimal size or color are culled out.  The UN estimates about 14% of the world’s food is lost between from harvest up to when the food reaches retail locations.

Food Waste

Food waste occurs in retail locations (e.g. grocery stores), food service establishments (restaurants, schools, etc.), and consumer households. Waste includes discarded perishable foods that have reached or surpassed their “best-before” date and left over edible food discarded from kitchens and restaurants. The USDA estimates food waste at between 30-40 percent of the food supply. Approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food were lost to food waste in 2010.

What can we do to help?

  • When buying food at a grocery or restaurant, seek out and ask for Florida-grown or local produce.  Be aware of when different locally-grown commodities are seasonally available.
  • Support your local food banks and pantries by donating or volunteering. Feeding America has a directory of local food banks.
  • Buy only what you need, and find creative ways to cook with leftovers.  The Center for Food Loss and Waste Solutions offers recipes for everyday leftovers and recipes for zero waste.
  • Support policies that help retain farmland, so we continue to have the ability to produce food in our nation, state, and region.  The USDA discusses the importance of farmland preservation and offers resources for farmers and non-farmers.
  • Use older food items in your pantry and refrigerator first.
  • Learn about food date labels. Did you know, with the exception of infant formula, date labels are not required by federal law?  Except in the case of infant formula, food should still be perfectly safe and good to consume after the label date has passed, unless the product shows signs of spoilage.
  • Buy “ugly” fruits and vegetables.
  • Compost food scraps.  UF/IFAS Extension has information on composting.
  • Connect with and support our local producers.  When the coronavirus pandemic led to a drop-off in restaurant food purchases, growers in our area who already had relationships with local consumers were generally more readily able to start or increase sales directly to consumers.  In turn, these farmers have been helping other local growers and cottage food producers connect with new direct-to-consumer markets.  You can find local producers by visiting your farmers’ market (many are offering contact-less drive-thru at this time), participating in agritourism (see also DiscoverMartin for local listings) when safe to do so, or searching an online directory like Local Harvest.
  • Learn about your local food system. The 2019 Martin County, FL Food System Feasibility Study provides insights and recommendations from growers, retailers, food banks/pantries, and other stakeholders to support strengthening of our food system.  To learn more about the food system in your area, connect with your County Extension office.

Learn More

The organizations listed below offer more great tips and resources to reduce food loss and waste: