Innovation Hub, September 2015

America Wastes 40 Percent of Its Food…Here’s What We Can Do About It
By Marc Sollinger
September 25, 2015
WGBH Innovation Hub

Go to your local supermarket and look at the produce section. You’ll probably see some oranges, some organically-grown red delicious apples, some cucumbers; if you’re making the trek out to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, you might even see some star fruit or black sapotes. But there’s one constant when it comes to all the produce on display: it all looks wonderful. There aren’t a lot of blemishes or bruises, and the fruits and vegetables are usually a consistent color. Everything seems ready for Food & Wine.

Turns out, there’s a cost to all this, and it’s a world away from spending $6 on a bottle of “asparagus water” at Whole Foods. No, to make room for the wonderful-looking stuff, much of the “ugly” “misshapen” produce is thrown out, even though the food is usually completely edible.

This produce is part of the billions of pounds of food that’s wasted in America every year. And it’s not just supermarkets throwing out fruit because it doesn’t look pretty. Food waste comes from farmers culling unmarketable but edible fruit, stores ditching food close to its “sell by” date even when it could still be eaten, and consumers misjudging the amount of food they’ll need and throwing out what they haven’t gotten around to.

This all adds up to tremendous waste; Americans toss about 40 percent of their food. Meanwhile, nearly 50 million Americans don’t know where their next meal will come from.

Ashley Stanley wanted to help solve this problem. Her journey started in 2009, when she was grabbing lunch at a small restaurant in Boston. After she and her friends had finished eating, there was still enough food to feed at least five or six people. Stanley thought about all the other tables at all the other restaurants with wasted food, and realized that the food we throw away could be put to better uses. After more research, and a deepening feeling that she wanted to change the system, Stanley founded Lovin’ Spoonfuls. Lovin’ Spoonfuls is a nonprofit that takes perfectly edible food that grocery stores and produce wholesalers would otherwise throw away, and distributes it to families who need it. So far, it’s rescued two million pounds of fresh food that would have otherwise gone to a landfill (making it part of an ecosystem of organizations with similar goals, like Food For Free and Rescuing Leftover Cuisine).

Besides the obvious benefit of providing low-income people with food, there’s also an environmental boon to keeping wasted food out of landfills. For starters, food that decomposes in landfills accounts for 25 percent of US methane emissions. (Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas.)

Then there’s the environmental cost of food production. Stanley wants to call attention to “the amount of resources that it takes to go into the production of food, only to burn it. [After all] we are in a water crisis, we are in an oil crisis. The amount of water and oil we’re using to produce and incinerate food is mind blowing.” Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of America’s water use.

Stanley believes that dealing more effectively with food comes down to shifting the way food is perceived.

From catering companies using smaller vessels so that more food can be rescued, to assessing your own food needs so you won’t throw away stuff from your fridge, there are definitely ways to reduce the amount of wasted food. It may be difficult, but Stanley thinks it’s absolutely vital:

“Culturally… we need a reframe on how we look at food. On how we value food. It’s not just a commodity, it’s not just something that we’re producing, it’s not just something that we’re importing and exporting. We talk so much about food being a right, not a privilege, people having access to healthy food. I think we’re seeing the consequences of that not happening in extreme ways.”