Americans don’t set out to waste food.
People don’t buy an apple because they plan to throw it away. Instagram isn’t filled with posts bragging about tossed leftovers. There isn’t a pro-food-waste lobby in Washington.
So why do we waste more than a third of our food a year?
A handful of scholars wanted to find the answer. They conducted studies and found, in essence, that Americans waste food because we don’t know another way, and because we can.
The first study to look at U.S. consumers' attitudes about food waste came out of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in June 2015. One revelation was that having a leaky faucet or leaving lights on bothered people more than throwing away food did. But the gas created by food decay in landfills is a major environmental threat.
The second study, out of Ohio State University in 2016, found that a majority of Americans think food waste is a problem, but find it difficult to reduce their own waste. Indeed, a quarter of respondents said they’re too busy to change.
It’s not all bad, though. There’s hope for us yet.
Americans are “concerned about wasted food, and are interested in taking further action,” the Johns Hopkins study said.
Our good intentions go bad … literally
Americans are conditioned to seek out the freshest, most nutritious food.
Grocery stores stock only the most beautiful fruits and vegetables on displays that give the feeling of abundance. And why not? The produce department has some of the biggest profit margins in a grocery store.
Armed with the intent to feed ourselves and our families only the best, we fill our carts with “good fat” avocados, antioxidant-rich berries and all the fixings for that salad we’re definitely going to bring to work this week.
And then life happens.
The avocados turn to mush. Those berries grow fuzz before we know it. That salad becomes another thing we didn’t get to this week. In the trash they go.
Sixty percent of people in the Johns Hopkins study said they threw away food out of a desire to eat the freshest foods. A similar number said the same in the Ohio State survey.
Rosalynn Torres has the best intentions when she goes food shopping. She keeps a list of what she’s out of and doesn’t buy more than she needs. Her fridge and pantry aren’t stuffed full just for appearance’s sake.
Even so, the 37-year-old Pheonix-area resident ends up throwing out food. Sometimes it’s the banana her husband forgot in his lunchbox. Or the dinner leftovers lost in the back of the fridge. More likely it’s the milk that’s older than the date printed on its package and her 10- and 17-year-old sons won’t drink.
“Those are the things … we’re human,” Torres said. “We can try our best to have the perfect diet and have an eating schedule but you cannot follow it all the time. Every day is not the same day.”
Across the globe, fruits and vegetables have the highest wastage rates of all food products, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Those fruits and vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense food available. In a new study that's under review for publication, researchers at Johns Hopkins discovered that annual food waste represents 1,217 calories per person per day in America. That waste was high in protein, fiber, vitamin D and other things necessary for a healthy diet.
We are not self-aware
Americans think they waste less than their neighbors.
More than 70% of people in the Johns Hopkins study and more than 85% in the Ohio State study said they toss fewer foods than others do.
That’s a “natural tendency,” said Brian Roe, director of the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative and co-author of the university’s study. It’s the same tendency that makes us think we’re better drivers than everyone else on the road, he said.
Food-waste reduction advocates say people should sort their trash to find out how much they waste. They say putting food scraps into a separate container from other trash for a few weeks will give you an accurate understanding of your behavior. You can download a toolkit to measure and record your waste on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
But sorting and measuring trash is a lot to ask of busy people, said Katy Franklin of ReFED, a non-profit aimed at reducing waste through a data-driven approach.
A much easier way to see what you waste is to keep your grocery receipt, she said. When you clean out your fridge or throw food away, highlight whatever got wasted on that receipt. It’ll give you a snapshot – and real data – on what you toss most often and how much it’s really costing you.
Once you’re aware of your habits, you can start to see the patterns.
“Maybe you bought two eggplants because they were two-for-one but now you see that every time you buy two-for-one, you throw one away. You only need one," Franklin said.
We can afford to throw food away
Americans spend less on groceries than anyone else in the world.
We spend 6.4% of our budgets on food, according to USDA calculations based on Euromonitor International data from August 2016.
That number jumps to 10.3% in Germany, 13.2% in France and 14.1% in China. The poorest countries spend around half of their money on food: 41.9% in the Philippines; 43% in Kazakhstan and 56.4% in Nigeria.
Less than half of respondents in the Ohio State study said throwing away food was a major source of wasted money. Yet the Johns Hopkins study found the strongest motivator to get someone to reduce their waste is the prospect of saving money.
The average American loses $371 a year to wasted food, according to the USDA. But that’s not a large enough figure to influence most people, according to the Johns Hopkins study. That amount “might not be sufficient to motivate most non-low-income consumers,” it said.
The number, broken down to about a dollar a day, doesn’t seem big. But it’s all about perspective.
Think about the car-insurance companies that use that same amount — “hundreds of dollars in savings a year” — as the foundation for their multimillion-dollar ad campaigns. If that’s enough motivation to get consumers to act, why isn’t saving food?
We don’t know a lot about food safety
Americans would rather be safe than sorry.
Sixty-five percent of people in the Ohio State study said they discarded food because they worry about food poisoning. Of those respondents, 91% said they pay attention to date labels on food.
People think older food and food that’s past its date will make them sick.
But more often than not those dates refer to quality, not safety. And most food-borne illness is caused by contamination along the supply line or improper food handling, not from expired food.
Food-date labeling is confusing at best. What do “use by,” “sell by” and “best before” mean anyway? Probably not “poisonous after.”
Infant formula is the only food product with federal regulation for label dates. Everything else is left up to a patchwork of state and local laws.
Take milk, for example.
In most states, the date printed on milk cartons is 21 to 28 days after pasteurization. In Montana, that date is 12 days after pasteurization. When that date passes, retailers are not allowed to sell or donate the milk. Opponents of that law say it has led to an untold amount of milk poured down the drain and has caused milk prices to increase.
The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic examined Montana’s law in a documentary called “Expired? Food Waste in America.” They pointed out that since milk is pasteurized, which removes potential contaminants, it's unlikely to make you sick if it's spoiled.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) introduced the Food Date Labeling Act of 2016, which called for federal standardization of date labeling. It died in committee.
Late last year, the USDA released guidance for the food industry to adopt the phrase “Best If Used By” on date labels.
This year, two of the biggest trade groups in the grocery industry encouraged manufacturers to voluntarily adopt two standard phrases. The Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association urge producers to label food with “Use By” if it’s a highly perishable item for which there is a food-safety concern. Otherwise, food should be marked with a “Best If Used By” date to describe product quality, not safety.
Essentially, the complications around date labeling come back to affordability. Most Americans can afford the “extra layer of safety” of basing their actions on a date label while those with tighter budgets “look at a label twice, sniff three times and then make a decision,” said Roe, co-author of the Ohio State University study.
How we can change
Americans might say reducing food waste is simple: Just stop throwing away wholesome food. But it’s not that easy.
It’s a fundamental shift in our thinking and actions, activists say. Consumers need to acknowledge their roles in wasting and then learn how to stop.
That could mean buying less, or storing food more carefully so it lasts longer.
It could mean learning how to cook with leftovers, or not minding them in the first place.
Composting, donations and rallying to change laws are all on the table.
America has a national goal of cutting food waste by 50% by 2030.
ReFed thinks consumer education campaigns and innovation have huge potential to make a difference. In April, it launched an Innovator Database that tracks more than 400 organizations that fight food waste (and which created more than 2,000 new jobs).
However we get there, Americans are setting out to waste less.