The scandal of food waste in the US

I was brought up with enough food to eat but wasting was severely frowned upon. You served on your plate what you thought you needed and then ate all of it. That was not an uncommon practice in Sri Lanka and I suspect in many developing countries. That habit has persisted throughout my life so that to this day I almost never throw any food away. Whatever is bought is cooked and eaten. It is a bit of a joke in my family that I will eat food even if it has just started going bad. If cheese is getting moldy, I will cut out the spoilt part and eat the rest. The same with fruits. I ignore the sell-by date and only throw something away if it smells bad or is obviously rotten. I would save even the tiniest amount of leftover food after a meal, put it in the fridge, and then mix it into an omelette or something later and eat it. I actually find such ‘savory’ omelettes very tasty.

So naturally one of the things that shocked me when I first came to the US was the enormous waste of food that I saw everywhere. Samantha Bee had a segment on food waste and the numbers she quoted astounded me. The amount of food wasted in the US works out to about one pound of food per person per day. About 43% of that waste is thrown out by us consumers, more than restaurants and grocery stores. Americans are estimated to throw out about 15-25% of the food they buy. That is a huge amount of individual waste.

She also said that food that is thrown way in dumps are a big source of methane, one of the worst contributors to global warming, which is 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Food waste contributes 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

As part of my strategy to avoid waste, my fridge is pretty bare, consisting of only the things that I know I can eat fairly soon. I sometimes see fridges in other people’s homes that are completely packed with stuff and wonder how they can eat all of it before it goes bad, or even know all that is in there. Perhaps they can’t, and that is why there is such waste.


  1. says

    I grew up in a house with five mouths and a 20 cubic foot freezer in the basement. My fridge now has a (comparatively) large freezer for one person (40L). The idea of throwing away food that can be frozen appalls the skinflint in me. Other than juice, milk, or lettuce, if I can’t use it immediately, it goes in.

  2. cartomancer says

    I tend to be on the very frugal side of food buying too. Partly that’s due to how I was brought up -- you finish what’s on your plate, because otherwise that’s an insult to the person who prepared it and all the hungry people who would have liked it instead of you. Partly it’s because there is a physical limit to the amount of food I can buy, which is the amount I can carry in my hands and the small shoulder bag I take with me downstairs to the corner shop. Sometimes I fall afoul of my poor judgment in terms of portion sizes, but if I wait a few hours I find that, strangely, I am hungry again and can warm up what’s left. I don’t tend to buy things that will go off before I’ve finished with them, which means most loaves of bread.

    I’ve observed people who waste a lot of food, though, and the one thing I have noticed most of all is that they don’t make any kind of plan for what they need to buy. My parents tend to buy lots of food and store lots too, but they know what lasts for months (or sometimes years in the freezer) and what needs using up within days. They plan what they want for dinner a week or two in advance, and the result is they hardly waste a thing either.

    In my experience the wasteful tend to just shop according to whimsy and don’t stop to think when they’ll be using what they buy. Inevitably this habit tends to result in over-buying. Meal planning is also whimsical -- I’ve had friends who have cupboards full of food going off but have a takeaway delivered because they just feel like it at the time. The thought of putting some thought into this aspect of life just appals them.

  3. bmiller says

    I love my landlady, and appreciate the modest rent. But she is a serious hoarder. As in eight feet pile filling the garage hoarder. And over buying food and over-cooking it is part of the problem. She loves to cook but there is only herself (and occasionally me), so the refrigerator is FULL at all times with the remnants of meals and often scary groceries.

  4. anat says

    By mass, most of what I eat is fresh vegetables. For my husband and my son the fraction is smaller, but still they also consume quite a bit of them. We shop for food at Costco once a week, plus a smaller trip to the supermarket for items Costco doesn’t carry or which Costco sells at amounts that don’t match our eating style. But immediately after the Costco trip the fridge is exploding with huge packs of vegetables. A week later many of the packs have very little left in them. We do generate some waste -- though it all gets composted. Oh, and some vegetables don’t get refrigerated at all. Tomatoes really lose a lot of flavor if they are refrigerated, so they stay out -- which also makes them more visible, reminds us to eat them.

  5. Shanti says

    I also hate to overload the fridge and buy only for a week and try to finish it before next shopping day. Cooking items only what we like to eat and finishing it within that time then no waste and plenty of storage space in the fridge. No point in hoarding as we are all living in areas with close supermarkets etc in Colombo

  6. John Morales says

    I think it’s pretty simple.

    When one has access to all the food one could want, easily and cheaply, it’s very easy to not care about wastage.

    Even the poorest citizens of the USA (“Americans”, as they are routinely known) have plenty of access to more food than they need. In fact, the general rule is that the poorer one is, the fatter one tends to be.

  7. says

    John Morales (#6) --

    The poorer one is, the more likely they are to live in a food desert with no access to fresh produce, to have long commutes which take up their time and make cooking more difficult, and to be transient and not have reliable refrigeration or cooking facilities.

    The “poor dietary choices” they are attacked for were made by other people (employers who don’t pay enough, poorly designed cities, escaping abusive relationships, etc.), not by those who are poor.

  8. says

    I think a fair punishment for wasting food would be to be locked up without food, for as long as it could have fed you; or twice as long, if any deliberate attempt was made to render it inedible. Businesses and other entities that cannot be imprisoned could be fined 100 or times the value of the wasted food.

  9. moarscienceplz says

    Most Americans are very isolated from the systems of food production, so we spend very little time thinking about how food gets on our plates, thus it is no surprise we spend almost no time thinking about how to not waste it.
    150 years ago, most of us lived on subsistence farms so planting, growing, storing, and cooking food consumed the bulk of of our waking hours, but now I often don’t start thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner until I’m in my car at the end of my work day. 50 years ago, my high school offered what was called Home Economics classes where students (only girls, unfortunately, but I did take some cooking lessons there during summer vacations) were taught how to shop for food, store it safely, and cook it, as well as what to do with leftovers. I don’t think anything like that exists anymore.
    The food industry actively insulates us from thinking about food production. For example, where are all the stewing hens? If you see 100 dozen eggs on display in your supermarket, that means there are about 1500 laying hens somewhere. A hen’s laying lifepan is about 1000 days, so that means there are 1 to 2 hens “retired” every day for every supermarket in the country and that doesn’t even count the breeding hens that are laying fertilized eggs for the next generation of chickens, or the eggs used by restaurants and in processed foods such as baked goods. Where are all these old birds? I’m told they make the best chicken soups and stews, but I have only seen them for sale a few times in ethnic food stores. I suppose some of them are used to make commercial chicken stock and soup, but I doubt that consumes the whole supply of them. Whatever is done with them, I am sure is more wasteful and less healthy than letting people make their own soups and stews with them.

  10. Deepak Shetty says

    My experience is similar to yours (All brought about by getting a earful if a couple of grains of rice were still left on a plate with plenty of real life examples of those who would not even get that much to eat). I remember maybe 20 years ago my then British and French colleagues could not get over the size of the dessert served in a restaurant in America (v/s what we got at our respective countries).
    Instead of savory omlettes my goto is leftover quesadilla with various unheard of Indian combinations as the stuffing.

    I sometimes see fridges in other people’s homes that are completely packed with stuff

    Heh -- Amusingly this is the source of my last argument with my spouse. My solution to a packed fridge was buy less -- hers was to buy another fridge (Which a couple of my friends have) -- Its astounding to me (who grew up without a fridge!). In the pandemic though we have favored fridge packing to minimize trips.

    @John Morales

    In fact, the general rule is that the poorer one is, the fatter one tends to be.

    If true, That is more likely a consequence of the type of food available cheaply in the US rather than the high availability of it. if you wanted to maximise the bang for your buck with limited bucks your choices in America is pretty much the fatty deep fried extremely unhealthy crap.

  11. John Morales says

    anat, interesting.

    Fact remains, in countries such as the USA (or Oz) cheap calories are very accessible; one can spend $$$ on nice meat or fish or veggies or fresh fruit, or one can spend $ on (highly processed) meat slurry products or fish slurry products or fried gunk or sweet glop.

    As noted above, some people can’t afford $$$.

    (proper nutrition is expensive, but calories are cheap)

    Back when I was 15-16, I worked part-time as a kitchenhand — it was amazing to me how many plates would come back with a large portion of the serving uneaten.

  12. brucegee1962 says

    My daughter dated someone from a wealthy family where they never saved leftovers. Anything left at the end of a meal was always thrown away. That’s probably a big part of the wastage.

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