Americans waste enough food to feed more than 80 million people for a full year. And there is evidence that amount is growing.
The big refrigerators Americans have these days — side by sides the size of adjoining phone booths, some with televisions on the door — have had a perverse effect on food consumption, explains historian Jimmy McWilliams.
“Refrigeration and packaging convey to the consumer a sense that what we buy will last longer than it does,” McWilliams told The New Yorker magazine. “Thus, we buy enough stuff to fill our capacious Sub-Zeroes and, before we know it, a third of it is past its due date and we toss it.”
We buy more food because we have more space to store it. And then we waste it.
The point of the article by David Owen is that efficiency doesn’t always make us efficient. Our refrigerators use much less energy than they once did (back when freezers would constrict with a polar crust). But given cheaper and more effective refrigerators, we simply buy more of them.
As a result, we have bigger refrigerators and they are everywhere. There are refrigerators in the garage and the basement and in the room with the 55-inch television. We don’t spend less on cooling, and because we want to keep these caverns larded, we waste food.
Jonathan Bloom, who has written a book about wasted food, contends that 40 percent of the food grown for consumption never makes it into our mouths. According to Bloom, we waste 50% more food now than in the 1970s.
“Every day Americans waste enough food to fill the Rose Bowl,” according to Bloom. There’s a lot of time and effort eating local or organic, Bloom writes. We should all also pay more attention to keeping our food out of the trash.
In 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that “27 percent of the 356 billion pounds of the edible food available for human consumption in the United States were lost to human use” either at harvest, by groceries or by those who serve it.
In 1997, that amounted to 96 billion pounds of food.
That year the USDA figured that every American ate three pounds of food per day. In other words, in 1997, Americans wasted enough food to feed nearly 87 million people for a year.
(Measuring the amount of food we waste is an inexact science. Bloom contends we waste about 40% of our available food, up from 20% in the 1970s. That apparently comes from a U.S. General Accounting Office report. We’re not sure where Bloom found the 40% figure, but we can recommend his website, here. The USDA in ’97 pegged food waste at 27%, as we noted. Whatever the figure, that’s a lot of food.)
Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a new report on the food Americans waste. Basically, the bean counters and sharp pencil boys at the USDA have refigured waste, food by food. The government now calculates that we waste more milk, Swiss cheese, lard and pumpkin than anyone thought. We waste less chicken, lamb, cottage cheese and frozen potatoes.
Item by item, the amount of waste is astounding. The USDA estimates consumers waste 29% of all pork, 40% of all fish, 20% of all beef and 35% of the nation’s turkey production (mostly in tossed leftovers from Thanksgiving).
We throw away 21% of all almonds and 14% of our peanut butter. (Does peanut butter go bad??)
We chuck half of all Swiss cheese and 43% of the blue. We throw away 45% of our flavored milk, 35% of our butter and half of all the eggnog.
We eat less than half of the grapefruit we buy. Ditto with tangerines and we lose a third of our avocados. We simply throw away a huge percentage of all our fresh fruits — and we discard about a third of all our frozen fruits.
We only throw out 9% of the fresh cauliflower, but discard a third of our carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, kale, eggplant, greens and onions.
And why in the world would we throw away a third of our rice?
Bloom’s book, American Wasteland, has tips on how to reduce the amount of food you throw away. So does his website.
Meanwhile, the reports of a world food crisis this year continue to appear. Already, there has been a wave of food riots in Algiers, after prices for sugar and cooking oil shot up. Two people have died.
In Foreign Policy magazine, Lester Brown writes about the signs of “the great food crisis of 2011.” Russia is importing grain to sustain its herds. India has an 18% annual food inflation rate. China is searching the world for “massive quantities of wheat and corn.” Food prices worldwide have hit an all-time high.
Weather often causes food shortages and price spikes, Brown writes. This time, however, supply is simply not keeping up with demand.
And part of that supply is ending up in our trash.