“Dump potatoes in the rivers. … Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth,” John Steinbeck wrote in “The Grapes of Wrath.” “There is a failure here that topples all our success.”
Steinbeck’s lament against food waste is eerily relevant today, as supply-chain disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic have continued to force farmers to euthanize hogs they can’t sell and bury excess potatoes.
Even before COVID-19, Americans, on average, were tossing away more than a pound of uneaten food per person each day, amounting to some 400 pounds of food thrown out annually. That’s far more than any other wealthy country — about 50% more food waste per capita than France and nearly double that of the U.K. According to U.S. government estimates, the cost of U.S. food waste comes out to $161 billion annually. The environmental costs are abysmal.
So the problem of food waste is certainly not new. But it feels newly flagrant at a time when millions of Americans have lost their jobs and 98% of U.S. food banks are reporting demand increases, with 37% reporting critical shortfalls. What makes such waste even harder to accept is that strategies for preventing it abound at every level of government and from big businesses to individual consumers. Taken together, these strategies could radically reduce the amount of food sent to U.S. landfills. Here’s what should happen in each sphere.
For starters, federal agencies need a more concrete plan for food waste reduction. In 2015, the USDA, EPA and FDA vowed to collaborate to cut food waste by 50% by 2030 — a goal endorsed by the Trump administration in 2018 and repackaged as the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative. The Trump plan identified six “action areas,” such as collaborating with industry and educating consumers, but set no clear timelines or ways of measuring progress. The plan should have specific yearly goals, more robust staffing resources and defined measurement practices. Jean Buzby, the USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison, was vague when I asked her for numbers: “Our data and measurement practices are a developing science,” she told me. “It’s not refined enough at this time to compare [waste reductions in] 2018 versus 2019.” That data science needs rapid development.
One area where congressional policymakers can make a difference is food donation rules. A bill (S.3141) introduced in the Senate last December, by Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey and Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, would expand protections for farmers, restaurants, schools and markets, limiting civil and criminal liability when donating food to populations in need. (Half of food manufacturers, a quarter of retailers and wholesalers, and 40% of restaurants cite liability as a barrier to food donation, according to a Food Waste Reduction Alliance survey.) The act would also allow food-rescue organizations to charge a small amount for delivery, alleviating a cost that often deters them from donating their supplies.
Lawmakers also need to clear up confusion around expiration dates on perishable foods, which vary wildly from state to state. “Date label confusion wastes massive amounts of food,” said Emily Broad Leib, who directs the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. “Supermarkets lose about $1 billion a year from food that expires in theory — but not in reality — before it’s sold.”
There is currently a bill pending in the House (H.R.3981) that would clear up such confusion and cut down on waste. Introduced by Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree and Washington Republican Dan Newhouse in 2019, it would standardize dozens of different date-labeling laws and give consumers a clearer understanding of how long their fresh foods are safe to eat. According to Leib, the act has been shelved during the pandemic, because standardizing data is time consuming and the benefits would not be realized immediately. But lawmakers have to be thinking about both near- and long-term solutions. Congress would be wise to put this bill back on the agenda and pass it sooner rather than later.
Legislators can also think bigger: One idea, being pushed by Leib and other advocates, is to allow farmers to receive a tax credit, rather than deduction, for donating their surplus to food banks. Enacting such a measure would quickly help move the mountains of uneaten produce, now rotting on farms, to the hundreds of food banks and pantries reporting surges in demand.
States and cities have gone much further on fighting food waste. In California and six other states, bans on organic waste and landfill surcharges have been very effective at reducing waste. Many cities have also created composting programs to reduce food scraps and yard trimmings, which comprise a third of municipal waste streams. Some of these programs are now being threatened due to COVID-related budget cuts. Rolling them back would be a blow to hard-earned progress on reducing waste and its impact on the environment. Less than 5% of food waste in the U.S. gets composted into soil fertilizer; the rest rots in landfills in an uncontrolled way, emitting methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The private sector is in the best position to push near-term solutions on food waste. The group ReFed, which generates food waste data and analysis, has identified 34 for-profit and nonprofit enterprises helping to solve the waste crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. Among them are Forager, which aims to digitize the food-recovery supply chain, and BlueCart, which helps wholesale suppliers sell to food banks at a discount. Another notable startup, Wasteless, is developing dynamic pricing tools so that grocers can lower the cost of perishables as they get closer to expiring. And Apeel Sciences, which produces a natural coating that extends the shelf life of fruits and vegetables, announced a $250 million funding round in May, even winning the attention of Oprah Winfrey and Katy Perry. Investors and entrepreneurs should consider paying more attention to what’s emerging in this space.
Of course, consumers hold the greatest responsibility in reducing food waste. Forty percent of all wasted food comes from homes, and most of what gets tossed is perishable produce, dairy and meats. Cutting down on this means changing our buying behaviors and being more thoughtful about disposal. For example, you can buy mottled or misshapen fruits and vegetables: They taste just as good as perfect-looking produce, and may be better for you. We can also donate whatever produce we buy but can’t consume; apps like Olio can connect us to local food pantries and neighbors in need.
“A challenge with reforming consumer behavior is that food waste often arises from virtuous intentions,” such as opting for fresh, healthy foods over processed foods with a longer shelf life, says Darby Hoover, a waste expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Fortunately, the rise of online shopping and apps to reduce food waste can help us. When we shop online, we tend to have fewer impulse buys and become more deliberate about our purchases, which can cut down on waste. Such planning ahead can help retailers limit waste, too.
For decades, Americans have taken our overabundance of fresh foods for granted. It took a pandemic to wake us up to our own profligacy. Let’s not squander the opportunity to rein in our waste.
Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after COVID-19 as well as the book “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”