THE STAGGERING SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS OF FOOD WASTE
During this season of charitable spirit, holiday meal preparation, and reckless consumer behavior, the amount of food we throw in the trashcan deserves a moment of our attention. Fifty-two million tons of food are wasted by consumers and consumer-facing businesses annually — over 80 percent of all U.S. food waste. Currently, less than 10 percent of that food is recovered by reaching the 1 in 7 Americans without enough to eat.
Food that goes to landfills breaks down in a heap without oxygen, producing methane, a gas with 86 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. These emissions are no small matter. Considered on a national scale, organic matter rotting in landfills accounts for 1/5 of methane emissions. In fact, if global food loss and waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third largest source of greenhouse gases.
Fortunately, New York City, which sends over a million tons of food to landfills annually, is doubling down on efforts to cut waste while also addressing food insecurity through anti-poverty initiatives. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has committed to sending zero waste to landfills by the year 2030 and is working with a number of groups to make this goal a reality.
The first step is admitting we have a problem — even when our brains try to convince us otherwise. A 2015 study found that 73 percent of surveyed U.S. consumers think they throw out less food than the average household, while only 3 percent think they throw out more than average.
Much attention has been focused on preventing food from being wasted in the first place by educating consumers about food waste and helping them shop and cook smarter. But food thrown out by consumers and restaurants ends up being more wasteful than crops left to rot on farmland, because more resources have gone into harvesting, processing, transporting, and — ultimately — refrigerating and cooking that food. Food waste also weighs heavily on our wallets, costing U.S. homes $144 billion every year.
According to ReFED, a group dedicated to rethinking food waste in the U.S., preventative measures have huge potential to reduce the economic and environmental cost of food waste. Preventative efforts focus on approaches like adjusting food package size or standardizing food date labels.
Waste reduction efforts also focus on keeping uneaten food out of landfills. People feel less guilty when they compost food, and while this has major climate benefits, it’s an imperfect solution. Food waste not only harms the environment — it also represents a missed opportunity to feed the many people in the U.S. who can’t afford — or don’t have reliable access to — nutritious food.
In between preventing food waste and responsibly dealing with food waste lies an area of opportunity: recovering food on its way to being wasted and connecting it with families in need. Nearly 17 percent of New Yorkers are food insecure, and that number is even higher among children, with nearly 1 in 4 living in food-insecure homes. But here the problem gets a bit more thorny — imagine handing unpackaged food or a box of leftovers to a stranger on the streets of New York City and expecting them to feed it to their children at home. Fortunately, New York City has a more effective (and trustworthy) approach.
Like all good matchmaking, timing is of the essence, especially when it comes to nutrient-dense and perishable foods, like fruit, dairy, meat, and vegetables. Connecting surplus or donated food with NYC’s hungry families and communities is a complicated “ballet of logistics,” as a reporter for CityLab discovered by following City Harvest’s delivery of Thanksgiving turkeys throughout Brooklyn last month. City Harvest, at the heart of New York City’s food recovery efforts, rounds up surplus food from 2,500 donors in a huge facility in Queens to be kept cold and safely stored until the fleet of refrigerated trucks can distribute the food to the 500 community food programs, pantries, and soup kitchens across the City’s five boroughs.
Food rescue work goes a long way toward feeding the hungry. Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, another food rescue organization headquartered in New York City, relies on a massive volunteer base and has provided over 325,000 meals from rescued food in 2016 alone. Operating in 12 cities across the U.S., this volunteer-led effort to recover meals can make a big difference without requiring infrastructure dedicated to food redistribution.
These rescue missions not only bring nutritious food to vulnerable populations — they also have major importance for climate change. In 2016, City Harvest rescued 55 million pounds of food, preventing over 50,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas from being released into the atmosphere. This is roughly the same climate savings as taking 10,000 vehicles off the road for an entire year.