LOYAL — It is estimated that about a third of the U.S. food supply is never eaten. Nancy Vance, Clark County UW-Extension family living agent, said the problem continues to grow and consumers need to be aware of their habits to minimize the amount of food wasted.
“We are about the worst country as far as food waste. We have gotten pretty casual about throwing stuff away, and there are consequences to that,” Vance said.
Betty Loos, member of her local home and community education organization, said she worked in school food service for 20 years and saw firsthand the amount of food that was wasted by the students.
“They would take a bite out of a sandwich and throw it away,” Loos said. She said it was really hard to watch not only the amount the students threw away but also what couldn’t be saved in the kitchen due to food preparation and safety laws.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 90 billion pounds of food is wasted at the household level annually, with the average person wasting about 20 pounds of food per month.
“The amount of energy that it took to harvest that food, transport it, get it to the supermarket looking good and then to get it home and throw it away, it really is a tremendous waste of resources that is happening on so many levels,” Vance said.
Patty Rinka, another HCE member, said it is hard especially with fresh foods to eat it before it goes bad.
“The shelf life isn’t very long, and when you are single, it can be hard to eat the entire container of strawberries or blueberries before they go bad,” Rinka said.
Loos said using the freezer or looking for smaller mixed fruit or vegetable containers in the store can allow consumers to eat healthful items without having to worry about letting a larger container go bad.
Vance said food waste not only happens at the consumer level but all along the food production chain.
“Some of it, we have absolutely no control over, but some of it we do,” Vance said. “Food waste can be divided into two groups: food loss and food waste. Forty percent of food waste happens during food production and never even makes it to the store or the table. Sixty percent occurs when food is discarded by retailers and consumers during distribution and consumption and is mostly avoidable.”
She said although we may end up throwing something away because we forgot about it or had too much to start with, it is important for consumers to find the balance between buying these foods and what they are actually going to eat.
“There are nearly 50 million people in the United States living in households without suitable access to healthy foods, and it is not because of food shortages. The issue is more about distribution,” Vance said.
Food waste is also an environmental and an economic issue, she said, with food loss costing an estimated $165 billion each year and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, accounting for 14 percent of municipal solid waste in landfills.
“That is more than one out of every 10 pounds of garbage. And when it decomposes, it releases methane,” Vance said.
The University of Wisconsin is working on a project to combat food waste — the Safe Food Pantries Project — through which food pantries are educated on how long it is safe to keep various food items. The project provides guidelines on what the different dates on foods mean and how long they will remain safe for distribution.
“It is often less of a safety issue and more of a quality issue, but it is important to educate them because these are the items many people donate to the food pantries,” Vance said.