In the Trash: The Wasted 40% of Food

Food Shift has launched ads educating people about how much of the pie is being thrown away. Photo: Food Shift
Food Shift has launched ads educating people about how much of the pie is being thrown away. Photo: Food Shift

The next time you decide to toss out that apple that you never got around to eating or the yogurt past its expiration date think about how much of your food goes into the garbage. Is it 40%?

That's how much food that's produced in the U.S. gets tossed out every year. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council that's $165 billion worth of uneaten and wasted food.

"It doesn't matter how sustainable, organic, local your food is if you're throwing away 40%," said Dana Frasz, executive director of Food Shift. All that wasted food means a lot of wasted resources -- water, land, fuel -- producing the food and transporting it, just so it can be thrown out!

Considering nearly 15% of households in the U.S. are food insecure -- meaning they don't know where their next meal is coming from -- all that wasted food seems like it ought to go to all those hungry people. That's what Frasz thought when she started a volunteer food recovery program while still in college. The program worked like most food waste recovery programs -- volunteers drive around and collect unused food about to be thrown out from restaurants and cafeterias and deliver it to food banks. In the Bay Area, there are dozens of food recovery organizations.

But, Frasz had another idea.

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"The food recovery space is deeply flawed," she said. "We want to create a food recovery sector" -- like recycling, which runs off its own revenue.

That's what Food Shift is hoping to do, but it's not quite there yet. Right now, the organization has a number of programs to recover unused food that otherwise would go in the trash. They operate a pilot program with two schools in East Oakland where extra cafeteria food -- unopened milks and uneaten apples, for example -- are collected and then given back out to families at the school who need the food.

They also work with restaurants to have them offer smaller portions, so less food is thrown away off of plates. Once food is on someone's plate it's nearly impossible to re-use or donate. They've launched an education campaign too to "try to shift the culture," said Frasz, and educate people and get them to sign a pledge.

Educating people about food waste is one of the most important steps in recovering the wasted food. Photo: Food Shift
Educating people about food waste is one of the most important steps in recovering the wasted food. Photo: Food Shift

The last piece of their puzzle is a program with Andronico's. The grocery store pays them to pick up extra, unused food every day. The store, then, is able to pay less in disposal and dumping fees to get rid of the food. With that money, Food Shift hires people to drive trucks to pick up the food and deliver it to St. Vincent de Paul's, which runs a number of poverty alleviation programs including free dining halls, and to other organizations that runs food banks and provide meals. As an added bonus, Food Shift hires people who have been clients at St. Vincent's, giving them money to buy their own food and closing the hunger circle. It's a win-win -- and it's a first step in creating a green economy around food recovery.

Plenty of volunteer organizations around the Bay Area are also picking up excess food and delivering it to food shelters. Last year, Food Runners in San Francisco picked up 10 tons of wasted food/week. This year, said Mary Risley, the founder of Food Runners, they're picking up 15 tons/week.

Most of the food comes from grocery stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Risley said that when Whole Foods opened in San Francisco twenty years ago, Food Runners bought a refrigerated truck to collect all the food. Otherwise, they rely on 200 volunteers who scurry around the city.

The second biggest donors are the new start-ups and tech companies, where food is catered or served everyday. Many of those places will donate the unused food to Food Runners.

The organization, though, will pick up from anywhere: hotel buffets, hospital lunches, catered events. Last week, said Risley, they got hundreds of boxed lunches from the Oracle convention.

On the Peninsula, there's Peninsula Food Runners, which collects about two tons of food/week. In the East Bay, a number of groups glean food that's left over in the fields -- fruit that isn't picked or tomatoes that fall on the ground after the harvester comes through -- and donate that to food shelters too.

Although all these organizations are hard at work, most of the wasted food still ends up in landfills. According to the EPA, of the 36 million tons of food waste that was generated in 2011, 96% was thrown into landfills or incinerators.

How does food get wasted?

  • Portion sizes have increased: The average pizza slice doubled in calories from 1982 to 2002 and the average dinner plate increased two inches in diameter, according to the NRDC.
  • Expiration dates: Without a national standard on expiration dates, there's often confusion about what they mean and, often, people throw out food without realizing it can still be good.
  • Overproduction: Many bakeries and restaurants produce more than they'll sell for fear of running out or because full shelves make people more likely to buy.
  • Attitudes: The U.S. has a different attitude than many countries about food: we tend to believe there's plenty. But, there's not.

But, Risley is optimistic that the Bay Area is on the right track. In San Francisco, she said, "I don't believe it's 40% [being wasted]. I'd guess maybe 20%."

QUEST has also created this video to show you all about the food you're wasting and why you should stop wasting it:

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