Wasted Food

Wasted Food Photo Credit: Clipart.com.

This holiday season, Americans will be feeding their faces–and their dumpsters. A recent study measured how much food gets wasted.


A cornucopia of wasted food. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In journey from the farm to the store to the dinner table, nearly half of America's food never gets eaten. That's according to Tim Jones, a professor of applied anthropology at the University of Arizona. He's spent the last ten years tracking food waste from households, farms, stores, and restaurants.

He says households alone throw out about fifty billion dollars' worth of food per year. But you wouldn't know that from talking to them.


Almost no households think they waste food. It was so funny to sit there and watch people, that you got to know real well, and they're sitting there dumping a plate of spaghetti and meat sauce into the garbage going out: "We never throw away any food."

He says just a few small changes in habit, like planning menus and freezing leftovers, could help us put less in our landfills and keep more in our wallets. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

This study looked at food waste from several different angles. It measured the quantities and causes of food waste in three different settings: farms, households, and retail/fast food outlets. It also compared these results with psychological and anthropological studies of people's behavior and attitudes toward food. In other words, it not only asked "How much food are we wasting?" but also "Why?" and "How does this compare to what we think we're wasting?"

This hasn't been done much since the 1950's. It's expensive and time-consuming to collect so much data. So estimates of food waste in the past few decades have been based largely on mathematical models. As it turns out, these figures greatly underestimated the amount of food we're wasting.

So what's going on? Jones says the causes of food waste vary from setting to setting. In households, perception and self-awareness are a big issue. People simply don't know how much food they're wasting. If you ask most people, they would say they waste about 1 percent of their food; the actual food waste per household averages about 15 percent.

On the farm, the causes and proportions of food waste depend largely on the culture of the industry. For example, the apple industry wastes relatively little of its crop (about 12 percent); Jones says that the industry has a cooperative culture in which farmers help one another out and try to sell as much as they can. The vegetable industry, on the other hand, is more cut-throat and high-risk. Major profits come only occasionally, and depend on a delicate balance between supply and demand. Often, the cost of harvesting a perfectly good crop of vegetables is more than the crop is actually worth. Jones says he's seen farm workers in the field with cell phones, talking to commodities brokers, trying to decide whether to harvest the crop or plow it over.

Retail food outlets vary as well. Jones says grocery stores have very low loss rates because they'll practically give away surplus food rather than get rid of it. Restaurants were also surprisingly efficient. Convenience stores, on the other hand, have high loss rates because they sell so much "instant" food–food that's ready to eat on the spot and therefore gets thrown away if no one buys it.

The overall cost of all this loss easily totals hundreds of billions of dollars. Jones says that simply thinking more about conserving food could make a big difference. He notes that unlike our ancestors, most of us aren't involved in producing our own food. We just buy it from the store. That distances us from the work that it takes to make food and, therefore, its value. He also says that many people don't understand that leftovers can be saved or frozen–a surprising number think it actually goes bad at the end of a meal! Simply adjusting the way we think about food could make us try harder to conserve it.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. How much food gets wasted in America overall? In a typical household?
  2. What are the main causes of food waste in homes?
  3. How much food do you think your family wastes, after reading this study?
  4. What are some ways that your family specifically could conserve food? What about your school? Your neighborhood restaurant?

For Educators

The State of California maintains a Food Scrap Management site to educate consumers about how to reduce, donate, and compost their food waste.

Australia's Environmental Protection site includes information about a worm farming that can help dispose of food waste.

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