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Food Waste America infographic

Sources: 2012 Census of Agriculture; Economic Research Service; Foreign Agriculture Service; National Agriculture Statistics Service; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

America—once a nation that valued thrift—wastes more food than any other country in the world: up to 40% of its food supply. While food is lost at several points as it journeys from its origins to our plates, by far the largest producers of waste are individual consumers. Designed by Khaito Gengo, the information graphic, “Too Good to Waste,” analyzes the critical problem of food waste and, importantly, suggests potential solutions. In King County, Washington, food policy makers and food waste stewards who are driving discussions about what data is needed to understand local food waste have found this visualization to be of interest.

Understanding the Problem

According to a 2012 National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) paper by Dana Gunders, on average, individuals in the US waste 25% of the food they buy. Researchers Kevin Hall, Juen Guo, Michael Dore and Carson Chow translate this to approximately 1,400 calories wasted per person per day—enough to nourish a child and almost enough to feed an adult. As stated in the NRDC paper, if consumer food waste could be reduced by 15%, with good but uneaten food instead recovered and distributed to those in need, an additional 25 million people could be fed each year. This is a significant opportunity, given that 48 million individuals are currently receiving food assistance via the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Importantly, food waste also represents squandered energy, water and land. The NRDC paper estimates that getting food to our tables each year requires 10% of the US energy budget, 50% of US land and 80% of US freshwater, as well as substantial chemical inputs (e.g., pesticides and fertilizers) and human labor. By wasting food, we are needlessly expending precious resources and exposing our human labor, land and waterways to unnecessary chemicals.

Additionally, wasted food contributes to climate change. Uneaten food placed in landfills generates almost 25% of the US’s emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas with a warming effect over 23 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. In addition, in 2012 the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research found that the global food system produces one-third of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions.

Looking for Solutions

Here in the Pacific Northwest, King County plans to decrease wholesome food loss by 25% over 10 years and develop a data-tracking mechanism for local food system waste in order to measure progress (see King County’s Local Food Initiative, a 2015 report). More data is also being collected by the City of Seattle, in collaboration with Seattle Public Utilities and the University of Washington, to better understand waste in the commercial food sector. The City’s goals (as stated in the Seattle Food Action Plan) are twofold: divert edible food from retailers and restaurants toward food banks to feed those in need and redirect inedible food waste from landfills into compost. This effort was prompted by Seattle Public Utilities data that found food and compostable food packaging to be the largest component (30%) of landfill-directed garbage.

While these policies and programs for food recovery and prevention are an important, inspiring part of ongoing efforts to overcome the problem of food waste, individuals must also make personal efforts. Everyone can help prevent food waste by buying only the amount of food that will be consumed. This might mean more meal planning, more frequent (but smaller) shopping trips, better food storage and eating leftovers. If everyone does their part to reduce and redirect food waste, the collective result will be saved resources, environmental protection and reduced hunger.