Spilled and spoiled: In the U.S., consumers are the food wasters

Typical free lunch at an elementary school in Ojai, Calif. Before the school partnered with a local nonprofit to cut down on waste, pupils sometimes threw away unopened cartons of milk.

Pupils at Meiners Oaks Elementary School in Ojai, Calif., are encouraged to put food they don't want on a sharing table, so other children can take it.

How much food do we really waste? And why does it matter?

It’s extremely difficult to accurately calculate food waste. You’ve got the waste at the farm, waste during processing, waste during transportation, waste during distribution, and waste by consumers. And what counts as “waste?" Does it include stems or leaves that we could eat but often toss out? Does it include crops that die before harvest? Does it include the extra calories we consume that we don’t need?

So, as you might expect, estimates of food waste are wide ranging. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently put out a report claiming America wastes 40 percent of its food. By its calculations, a family of four will throw away more than $2,000 worth of food a year. That’s a whole lot of spoiled peaches and leftover enchiladas. 

The NRDC estimate is higher than other numbers out there.  In an often cited study from 1995, the USDA calculated about 27 percent of edible food gets tossed in the trash by stores, restaurants and consumers.

Global numbers are equally difficult to pin down.  The U.N. estimates about a third of all the food produced for people is wasted.  That’s 1.3 billion tons of food a year. It finds that, in high-income countries, much of the food is tossed out once food gets to the consumers -- when we go out to dinner and don’t finish our plate or when we buy too much lettuce and let it get slimy in the fridge. In poorer countries, food is wasted earlier in the supply chain -- on farms and during transportation to market. 

The accuracy of all of these numbers is debatable. I spoke to a researcher named Tom Reardon who has studied the food supply chain in large Asian cities. He doesn’t come close to finding the amount of waste many of these international studies claim. He thinks waste in these areas is closer to 6 percent to 7 percent. No farmer, he says, can afford to let a large part of his crop be ruined before it gets to market. Reardon has also found waste numbers have improved as roads get better, producers have more access to mobile phones, and the food market  consolidates.

So will a reduction in food waste really help us feed 9 billion?

It’ll definitely help. In some parts of the world (like here in the U.S.) we buy and throw out way more food than we need -- at the same time others here are going hungry.  In other parts of the world, it’s possible that food waste isn’t the problem it’s made out to be. But still, less food in the trash means more land and water and resources can be used to feed more people. 

Kai Ryssdal: We don't have a lot of the problems here in the States that the Senegalese do. We've got good roads, good electricity and refrigeration, and our farmers generally stay in one place. But still, we end up wasting a whole lot of food.

Marketplace's Adriene Hill explains.


Adriene Hill: Dairy farmer Brad Scott takes me around his thousand-cow farm -- where the cows are pretty much doing what it is cows do.

Brad Scott:  Some are resting  

Some are eating.  

Scott: Some are just hanging out at the water trough.  

There's a little mooing.  

Scott: Just enjoying a nice day.

Their only job…  milk. Twice a day.  

Scott: This is what we call the milking parlor.

One of Scott's workers tugs at each teat to check the milk. These squirts are pretty much all the milk that Scott will toss. And maybe a little that sticks to the walls of the milk tank.  

Scott: Other than that, there's no waste from the time it leaves the udder until the time it gets to the consumer.

Here in the U.S., cows and dairy farmers aren’t our food waste problem. Our problem is us. The Department of Agriculture estimates we waste about 30 percent of our milk supply at restaurants and at home. We also waste that much or more of our total food supply. A lot -- without noticing it.

Jonathan Bloom: It tends to just go away.

Jonathan Bloom is the author of “American Wasteland.” Where does it disappear to? Here's a clue:

Garbage disposal sound

Bloom: We just throw it out or it goes down the drain and it's gone, so we don't tend to think about the impact that it might have, the money that we are squandering through the food that we're wasting.

We don't worry too much about tossing the yogurt that's been sitting a little too long, or the abandoned green beans that got a little gooey, because they weren't that expensive in the first place.

Bloom:  Despite rising food prices, the percentage of our household spending that goes toward food is at an all time low, and no other nation spends as little on its food.

In the U.S., we waste more fruits and vegetables than any other food group. Milk takes silver in the most-wasted category. And if you really want to see milk spilling in action.

Janice Dunkin: Let's go look at the trash!  

Schools are a great place to start.  

Dunkin: This one's pretty heavy.

I visit an elementary school in Ojai, Calif., and meet sixth-grade teacher Janice Dunkin.

Dunkin: Yes, I've dug through a lot of trash.

She's monitored the trash here for five years, discovering whole chicken breasts, apples that were too big for kids to bite into, unopened cartons of milk. And…

Dunkin: A lot of yucky stuff, too. Yes. A lot of chewed food, when you have it all mashed together it looks pretty.

I think "gross" is the word. But the amount of trashed food has been declining here. There's a partnership between the school and a local nonprofit called Food for Thought. To get kids to think more about food waste, they sort their garbage.

Student: Does this go here?

The cafeteria staff reminds kids not to take too much. They have a garden with a compost pile.

Student:  I want to do it.

There's a sharing table, where kids drop unopened milk. And, says Dunkin, they sometimes call on the bigger students to help -- giving sixth-graders trash-monitoring duties.

Dunkin: I put student leadership at that trash can and actually had kids make kids drink all their milk before they threw it away, yeah, and that worked. 

But kids aren't the only offenders. A lot of us do the same. Milk spoils in the fridge. We pour it in coffee that we don't drink. We forget it in the hot car. According to a USDA calculation, we toss the equivalent of about a third a glass of milk per person, per day.

Which, if I do a little math here, 310 million people, ounces into gallons, gallons into pounds of milk, how much milk cows produce -- that's about 800,000 cows worth of milk… down the drain. 

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: Our series "Food for 9 Billion" is a collaboration with Homelands Productions, PBS NewsHour and the Center for Investigative Reporting. You can find pictures and other stories by visiting our special collection -- "Food for 9 Billion."

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

Pupils at Meiners Oaks Elementary School in Ojai, Calif., are encouraged to put food they don't want on a sharing table, so other children can take it.

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