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We waste 1/3 of all the food produced in the U.S—here’s how to fix it

A new site is compiling food waste data and food waste solutions.

We waste 1/3 of all the food produced in the U.S—here’s how to fix it
[Photos: Serg_Velusceac/iStock, mipan/iStock]

In 2019, more than a third of the food produced in the U.S.—worth around $408 billion dollars—wasn’t sold. While a small portion was donated, much of it went to waste. But by the end of the decade, the government aims to cut food waste in half. It’s a complex challenge, as waste happens at every step of the food system, from produce that isn’t harvested on farms to food forgotten in fridges.

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A new website from the nonprofit ReFed shares the data in detail and maps out potential solutions. At restaurants, for instance, because portions are typically so large that diners leave food on the plate, shrinking portions could divert 2.4 million tons of waste a year, avoiding 11.5 million tons of CO2 emissions and saving $9 billion. At homes, meal kits are a surprisingly effective way to reduce waste, with the potential to divert another 1.75 million tons of waste because home cooks have precisely the right amount of ingredients on hand.

At grocery stores, new technology to help better plan demand can help, along with apps that alert shoppers about sales on food just before it’s about to expire. For farms, “ugly produce” companies can create demand for vegetables that would otherwise go unharvested. Nationally, new tracking technology can help better route produce around the country so that food with the shortest shelf life goes the shortest distance. And the list goes on.

The data about current waste and solutions will be updated on the site. “Rather than just creating a report for a field that is changing so quickly, we thought, let’s create an online data hub that can grow and evolve,” says Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFed. The tool can be used by policymakers, investors, philanthropists, and, critically, people working inside food companies. “We’re really hoping this gives internal champions within food companies the ability to identify the best solutions, and then be armed with information to make the case for them within their companies,” she says.

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If we invested $14 billion in food waste solutions each year over the next decade, ReFed estimates that total waste could drop by 45 million tons a year. That would save four trillion gallons of water, avoid 75 million metric tons of climate emissions, rescue four billion meals for people who are food insecure, and create $73 billion in net economic benefit, the group says. It’s possible to achieve, but will require a lot of effort. “If we hit the national goal of 50%, that’s ambitious,” Gunders says. “It’s going to take a massive mobilization of effort across all players in the food system to make that happen.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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