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We are what we don’t eat: combating food waste

Making conscious decisions about the food we eat is essential to a healthy lifestyle. But what about the food that never enters our bodies? A significant amount of all food ever grown, processed, prepared, and distributed becomes food waste.

In 4-H, we learn about healthy living. As a 4-Her, you can learn more about what food waste is and understand what you can do to take action in your community.

What is food waste?

Food

Healthy foods such as these vegetables go to waste everyday. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS]

Food waste is any discarded food that is, for the most part, suitable for human consumption. Whether it spoils, never ripens, remains unpurchased, or is wasted at the household level, a large amount of all food produced eventually ends up in the landfill.

Americans waste nearly 40 percent of all the food they purchase, amounting to a staggering 125-160 billion pounds of food waste every year. This loss of food is worth $218 billion dollars annually. Some food is inevitably wasted due to poor weather, issues with processing, or unstable markets. However, ordinary consumers are the main culprit behind food waste.

Why does food waste matter?

Scene at Myakka River State Park

Reducing food waste reduces strain on our natural resources, like water and land.
[CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County, Cailyn Raper]

Resource Use

The food that we eat daily needs valuable resources such as land, water, energy, and human labor to be produced. Food requires a lot more resources than you think. For example, the average turkey sandwich requires 158 gallons of water to make. When food ends up in the landfill, all of the effort and resources that went into producing the food is wasted along with it. The use of these limited resources causes intense environmental strain.

Difficulty Decomposing

Not only does food waste strain limited resources, it faces difficulty breaking down in the landfill. Many people believe that food waste isn’t as significant as other waste because it eventually decomposes in the landfill.

According to a study by archaeologist Dr. William Rathje, however, landfills lack the oxygen that is needed for food to properly decompose. He studied American landfills and discovered “mummified foods”: food that were several decades old but showed no sign of decay. The foods that did eventually break down released the harmful greenhouse gas methane as it decomposed.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Methane is only one of many greenhouse gasses involved in food production. Emissions from agricultural practices, processing facilities, transportation, and refrigeration all contribute to the food’s resource use. When we waste food, we needlessly increase our carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint is the sum of greenhouse gasses that you directly or indirectly produce in your lifetime. These emissions influence climate change.

The impacts of your carbon footprint are typically experienced most by food-insecure communities—those areas that don’t have ready access to affordable, nutritious food choices. These communities often lack the financial resources to adapt to the rapidly changing climate. By reducing your food waste, you decrease your impact on climate change and relieve food-insecure communities of the financial burden of climate adaptation.

What is food insecurity?

Food waste also contributes more directly to food insecurity, an increasingly urgent environmental issue.

Anyone that lacks consistent access to affordable, nutritious food is considered food-insecure. According to Feeding America, 1 in 9 Americans are considered food-insecure. Those who are food insecure commonly lack the financial resources to purchase food or live in places called food deserts. Food deserts are geographic areas where access to affordable healthy food is limited or unavailable. These deserts can be found all around the world, and they are probably closer to you than you think. You can learn more about food deserts near you by exploring this map.

How does my food waste impact food security?

Reducing food waste would redirect excess food to food-insecure populations. If Americans alone reduced their food waste by 15%, there would be enough food saved from the landfill to feed 25 million people. This is a significant portion of the estimated 37 million food-insecure Americans. If consumers in food-secure regions are not purchasing and wasting excess food, this drives markets to consumers in food deserts, likely resulting in a wider range of affordable food choices.

Reducing food waste is the first step to creating efficient systems of production and distribution that provide food access to those in need.

What can I do to minimize my food waste?

By taking simple steps to limit waste, a significant amount of food could be diverted from the landfill.

Two Men Composting

You can easily reduce the impact of your food waste by composting. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS]

Avoiding overbuying, planning meals before shopping, and learning how to properly prepare food can decrease personal food waste considerably.

To figure out what foods are going to waste in your home, perform a trash audit. To do this, keep a list of the trash you produce over a week and then categorize your list. Or, just rip into a bag of your trash and sort it by hand. This exercise reveals how much food you waste, and helps you make wise decisions when purchasing food. This will not only reduce your food waste, but it will also save you money.

Goats eating food waste

Animals, such as goats, love to eat food waste.
[CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County, Cailyn Raper]

To lessen the impact of unavoidable food waste, such as vegetable and fruit peels, start a compost pile. This is a great activity to start with youth. You can find more information about how to compost at the UF/IFAS Extensions Sarasota County composting web pages.

Youth can also get involved with their local 4-H chapter to lead community service projects that reduce food waste in their communities, perform trash audits or start composting. Kids age 5-18 can earn pins for environmental stewardship or gardening projects by dedicating at least six hours to an environmental or horticulture project of their choice. Learn more at our “Join 4-H page.”

There is no perfect solution to food waste, but any amount of food diverted from the landfill is enough to make a difference. What will you do to reduce your food waste?

Additional Resources
UF/IFAS images with individuals were taken prior to national guidelines of face coverings and social distancing.

2 Comments on “We are what we don’t eat: combating food waste

  1. Super informative!! Composting food waste instead of landfill usage would replenish soils that have been stripped of nutrients. We must take action now to avoid further damage to Earth’s delicate ecosystems!

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