“The United States enjoys the most productive and abundant food supply on earth, but too much of this food goes to waste," United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently confirmed. "An average family of four leaves more than two million calories— worth nearly $1,500—uneaten each year.”
Clearly, we don’t have a food supply problem in this country.
We have a food distribution and culture problem.
Taking for granted the embarrassment of riches most Americans enjoy, we have wasted food for generations, with little regard for the consequences. Research shows that food waste in our country has increased 50 percent in the last 40 years. We now throw away more than 33 million tons of food valued at $165 billion every year. Just a 15-percent decrease in this food waste could feed more than 25 million people each year and drastically reduce hunger in America.
Many scientists agree that addressing food waste could also positively impact the environment. Racking up annual disposal costs of roughly $1.3 billion, more than 97 percent of discarded food ends up in American landfills every year. There, it breaks down into methane, which is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. More responsible management of our food supply would reduce methane emissions from landfills and could have far-reaching implications for our environment.
For years, food waste reduction advocates have cited these and other statistics while lobbying against corporate and government policies that impede improvements to our food supply chain’s efficiency. On September 16, the federal government made a bold gesture to acknowledge the rampant food waste in our country. The United States Department of Agriculture partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency to announce the first-ever national food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50-percent decrease by 2030.
So how optimistic should we be that our government’s food waste reduction goals will effect real change? Evidence shows that public awareness can indeed make a dent in the problem. In 2012, the European Parliament adopted similar reduction measures, and the United Kingdom’s "Love Food Hate Waste" campaign resulted in an 18-percent food waste reduction over a five-year period.
Here at home, children in more than 200 Indiana schools participate in the K-12 Food Rescue program, actively fighting “landfill feeding” by reducing tray-to-trash waste in cafeterias. During the 2015-2016 school year, these students will bypass garbage cans to divert nearly 1.8 million unwanted food items to caring agencies that feed people in need. Those numbers will grow as Food Rescue continues to recruit the rest of the state’s 2,024 public schools in the coming years. Perhaps even more galvanizing, Food Rescue is providing curriculum content through Project Based Learning opportunities, and students are creating videos and content promoting food waste reduction in their schools and community for peer review. More ground breaking approaches and support will be needed to reach these important federal benchmarks by 2030.
It’s time to buttress this wave of positive momentum with a measurable action plan that incentivizes public, private, and corporate compliance.
Our country’s leadership has not yet detailed a clear strategy or explained the metrics that will gauge our progress. How will each stakeholder along the food supply chain, from farm to fork, identify and implement the most impactful and sustainable solutions? How will we know if we are succeeding or failing? Where are the new incentives for corporate change? Is the government willing to invest resources in the best and most innovative approaches—even those outside of government channels?
In the coming months, I plan to join other advocates in pursuing answers to these important questions and holding our government accountable. Always mindful of the 17.4 million food insecure households in our country and the cost effective measures we can take to protect our environment, I look forward to celebrating with America when we reach these historic goals in 2030.