Every produce professional understands the business impact of shrink; it shrinks potential profit. But if a customer buys the produce, either in retail or foodservice, does it matter what happens next?
Food Insecurity and Hunger in the United States
Food insecurity and hunger are daily challenges for many people in the United States. Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, estimates one out of every eight Americans is food insecure. Today, more than 42 million Americans will not get enough to eat, including 13 million children and 5 million seniors. The National Resource Defense Council estimates if we reduce food waste by just 15 percent, that could provide enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year.
How Much Food is Wasted?
USDA estimates 30 to 40 percent of food produced in this country is wasted. Every person in the United States wastes on average 400 pounds per year. An American family of four throws out $1,600 in food each year. Collectively, we are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion worth of food every year. It’s no surprise food waste represents the largest portion — 21 percent — of waste in municipal landfills.
Food Waste & Climate Change: The Role of Methane
Methane is one of three greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. Food in landfills produces methane gas as it decomposes. The same is true of food in compost piles. But if the purpose is to use compost to enhance soil health, the methane production is an acceptable by-product of the process. But in a landfill, the methane produced from wasted food serves no beneficial purpose.
Top Categories of Wasted Food
USDA estimates 30 percent of the value of all wasted food in the United States comes from meat, poultry and fish, followed by vegetables (19 percent) and dairy products (17 percent). Dietary intake of vegetables and dairy products are below recommended levels for more than 80 percent of the population over the age of 1. We need to focus our food waste reduction efforts on these nutrient-rich, perishable foods.
The Economic Burden of Food Waste
The economic burden of food waste is staggering. Data from ReFED, a collaboration of more than 30 business, non-profit, foundation and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States, show the country spends $218 billion, or 1.3 percent, of GDP growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten.
Food Waste Occurs Across the Food Supply Chain
While many think people are wasting most food at home or in restaurants, food waste occurs across our food system. ReFED estimates the largest percentage of food waste happens at home (43 percent), followed by supermarkets and restaurants (40 percent), and then on farms (16 percent). The remaining 2 percent is wasted during food processing.
Strategies for Reducing Food Waste in Foodservice
Andrew Shakman, head of LeanPath, a company devoted to reducing food waste in foodservice operations is often quoted as saying, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” By measuring amounts and sources of wasted food, foodservice operations can begin to see where they can have the most impact in reducing waste.
Proper handling of produce in foodservice operations is a challenge. Suppliers and distributors who provide training in proper handling and storage can help customers reduce losses.
Many campus dining operations have been using the simple strategy of removing trays from their operations. Trays allow excess food to be taken — and often wasted. Using smaller plates and bowls is another strategy for reducing food waste that may also reduce excess caloric intake in “all-you-can-eat” environments.
Anyone who operates a buffet knows the challenges related to food quality, as well as food waste. By doing batch cooking and using smaller steam table trays, operations can reduce food waste. The same principle applies to salad bars. Using smaller salad bar containers can help reduce waste from cross-contamination or improper holding temperatures.
A final big, and often neglected, opportunity for reducing wasted produce in foodservice is preparing and presenting it in a way that increases the likelihood it will be eaten, not tossed in the trash.
Produce deserves the attention of talented culinary professionals who can create craveable deliciousness. Steaming a side of vegetables is not good enough. Focusing on culinary techniques that improve visual appeal, aroma, flavor and texture can increase consumption while reducing waste.
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. She is the director of The Culinary Institute of America Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative. You can learn more about her business at farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.