Recently I reminded readers of the challenges faced by those in food deserts. Another difficult problem of food distribution is food waste.
Dana Gunders is a food and agriculture-focused project scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She recently authored “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill” and blogs regularly about food waste. I spoke with her recently.
“As a country, we waste a lot of food,” she said. The NRDC is involved in this issue because of the wasted resources involved, she noted. Waste occurs at every level in the supply chain.
An initial study, while not conclusive, seems to indicate that about 5% of broccoli raised in California’s Central Valley and Central Coast regions is lost in the picking and packing process. This could be because of market fluctuations, cosmetic imperfections, or other inefficiencies. It’s not a big number compared to other types of produce.
But, applying that number to broccoli production nationwide, that’s 90 million pounds that go to waste, along with the 1.6 billion gallons of water and 450,000 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer it took to grow those broccoli florets. It’s important to note that the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer is energy intensive and produces greenhouse gases. Or, put another way, 90 million pounds of broccoli is enough to feed every child in the National School Lunch Program 11 servings a year.
At the next level, the supermarket, Dana told me about one company, Stop and Shop, which conducted an analysis of factors leading to produce waste. “They learned that their customers were willing to accept fewer choices in the produce department.” That led to a greater perception of freshness, and better overall consumer satisfaction, because produce was turned over more quickly.
“Many companies don’t track waste in detail,” Dana said. Stop and Shop saved $100 million annually because they found a way to the level of detail that was needed to do so. However, any business that knows more about waste than what their monthly garbage-hauling bill is can improve efficiency.
At home, it’s a challenge to correctly interpret expiration dates of foodstuffs. “Misinterpretation of dates is a significant source of waste,” Dana said. “Even food insecure people are throwing away good food.” Broadly speaking, when food goes out of date, it usually means that the distributors of that food are no longer willing to guarantee its best flavor or other qualities. It very rarely means that the consumption of that food is harmful.
Food waste occurs at every level, so farmers, businesses, and consumers can all contribute to minimizing it.