Food Loss & Waste: What's the big deal?

By: Ana Jepsen, UWO Peer Wellness Educator

Food Loss and Food Waste

Over one third of the food in the United States is lost or wasted (USDA).  Food loss and waste is an issue that has many impacts, especially on the environment and food security.  So what is food waste and food loss? And what is the difference? Food loss is any food that is lost between the producer and where it is sold at.  So within the supply chain, it could be any food that is lost from the time of production to storing the food, processing it, to the point of distributing the food to consumers.  This could be a result of numerous incidents such as food packaging problems, or food spoiling or bruising before it reaches the grocery store. Food waste is throwing out or not using (safe for human consumption) food.  Food waste can occur at restaurants, homes and grocery stores. Often this food is thrown out because it is close to or has surpassed the best-by date. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)

What’s the big deal?

There are several negative impacts of food loss and waste.  One of those impacts is the amount of food waste going into landfills. According to the USDA, food waste is the “largest component going into municipal landfills”.  By minimizing food waste, we can therefore minimize the amount of resources that go into landfills. An abundance of resources are used in order to get this food to the grocery store and to people’s refrigerators.  Some of these resources include land, water, labor and energy. These resources could be preserved and directed elsewhere. Valuable resources are wasted every year as a result of food waste and loss. For example, in 2013, “3,300 to 5,600 megatons of greenhouse gases are associated with producing food that is ultimately lost or wasted.  198 million hectares [about 489,268,655acres] of land is used to produce food that is lost or wasted each year, and 173 billion Cubic meters [6,109,437,342,817 cubic feet] of water is used to grow lost or wasted food” (World Resources Institute). Another effect that food waste and loss have include financial impacts on individuals and households.  On average, the annual amount of money that an American family of four spends on uneaten food is around $1600. (World Resources Institute) So, even on an individual level, each person wastes hundreds of dollars every year on food that goes uneaten.  

What can you do to change that?

Food loss is a bit more difficult to change on an individual level, since many causes of food loss are due to markets, price mechanisms or policies regarding food products.  Food waste, on the other hand, can be minimized easily on a smaller scale. There are many ways that communities are tackling this problem. One example is on the UW Oshkosh campus.  On campus, there is a dry fermentation anaerobic biogas system which converts yard and food waste into electricity. According to the UW Oshkosh Biogas Systems website, the renewable energy facility “produces 8 percent of the University’s electrical needs and is converting 10,000 tons of yard and food waste per year to produce up to 3,300 MegaWatts of electrical energy per year.”  This is just one way and an example of a method that can be used on a larger scale to cut back the amount of food waste that goes into landfills each year. Here are some things you can do to minimize your own food waste to not only help the environment, but also your community and to save some money:

  1. Re-purpose and freeze extra food. 
  2. Donate food to organizations, such as food banks and shelters. 
  3. Compost and/or recycle food. 
  4. Make sure you check the dates on all food items that you purchase. 
  5. Make sure your refrigerator or pantry is organized so that you know which items are older, so you can use those first. 
  6. Plan your meals ahead and only buy what you need and what you know that you will use.

More information on the Anaerobic Dry Biogas System on the UW Oshkosh campus can be found here: https://uwosh.edu/biogas/urban-dry-systems-bd1/

Sources:

“By the Numbers: Reducing Food Loss and Waste.” World Resources Institute, 26 Sept. 2018, www.wri.org/blog/2013/06/numbers-reducing-food-loss-and-waste.

“Food Loss and Food Waste.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/.

“Food Loss and Waste.” USDA, www.usda.gov/foodlossandwaste.

“Urban Dry System (BDI) – UW Oshkosh Biogas Systems.” Biogas Systems, uwosh.edu/biogas/urban-dry-systems-bd1/.