Guest Column

Holiday Food Waste – Can We Do Better?

Food waste in America is increasing, while the cost of food, and hunger in the U.S. are rising.

By Hillery Daily

Eating is one of life’s great pleasures and is essential for our existence.  Unfortunately, the U.S. has one of the highest amounts of food waste in the world.  Much of this waste occurs during the holidays. At Thanksgiving, food is the main event. Despite the effort that goes into buying and preparation, about 312 million pounds of food is wasted.  In economic terms, that’s $600 million in the garbage can!  From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, solid waste increases by 25% and much of this is food.

Food waste in America is increasing, while the cost of food, and hunger in the U.S. are rising. It has tripled over the past 50 years.  In Montana, we average just over 3 1/2 pounds of food waste per household per week – at the low end of national average.

The good news is that we consumers can make a big dent in this problem. There are many reasons to care about reducing food waste. One is personal finances. Because of inflation and cost of living increases, food costs 35% more this year. Approximately 120 billion pounds of food is thrown away annually in the U.S., equal to 40% of our food. This is like buying five bags of groceries and dumping two of them in the trash as you leave. For the average American household, this equals a loss of $1,800 every year.

There are the environmental costs. Every year, getting food to our tables requires half of our food-producing land. With food waste, we throw out: 21- 33% of U.S. agricultural water, 19% of all cropland use, and 18% of farming fertilizers. About 80 million acres of land are used to produce wasted food; if that were wildlife habitat instead of farmland, it would be 35 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. 

Food is the largest category of material dumped in landfills. Rotting food produces methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than CO2. Over the past 50 years, greenhouse gas emissions from food waste have increased more than 300 percent, and are projected to increase another 400 percent by mid-century, if current trends continue. Globally, if food waste were represented as its own country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the United States. Reducing food waste is the most effective everyday action individuals can take to fight climate change. 

Another compelling reason to reduce waste is hunger and food insecurity. Despite the abundance of food in this country, about 38 million Americans (including 10 million children) face food insecurity, and less than one-third of the food we throw out would be sufficient to feed all of these hungry people. Thanksgiving food waste alone could feed the 38 million food-insecure people multiple times. From 2021-2022, the number of food insecure Americans increased by nearly half. In Montana, 28,000 children are food insecure or hungry. In 2022, Montana food banks served 38,000 households every month. 

How and where is all of this food wasted? The answer is at all steps, from production on the farm, to grocery stores, restaurants and food service, but nearly half is in home kitchens. The good news is that we can all do something about this.

Simple steps we can take to reduce food waste. 

  • Become aware of how much food you actually waste. 
  • The FDA recommends checking “past-date” food before discarding. Some is safe to eat, healthy and tasty. Appearance and smell are the best indicators of spoilage. This does not include foods left out too long, or cooked, stored or prepared improperly and it does not include baby formula sell-by dates, which should always be followed.
  • Plan meals, use shopping lists, check home stock. Buy only what you need.
  • Let your grocer know you will buy imperfect or “ugly” produce. About 266,000 tons of food are wasted because of its appearance.
  • Save and use leftovers. Freeze leftovers and extra food. USDA says that leftovers are safe refrigerated for up to 4 days and safe in the freezer indefinitely, but retain best quality for two-six months.
  • Refrigerators should be 40 degrees F or below and freezers 0 degrees or colder.
  • Have an “eat me first” area, with older food in the front.
  • Compost uneaten food if possible.

By taking some of these steps and encouraging others, we can increase food supply and reduce hunger in the U.S.

Hillery Daily lives in Ravalli County, where she had a Naturopathic Medical practice until retirement on 2015. Her healthcare practice always featured food and nutrition as fundamental aspects of health. She is passionate about every American having access to nutritious and adequate food.