Food waste from supermarkets and restaurants in NYC

In the United States, between one quarter and one third of our food supply is wasted every year, and we spend over a billion dollars disposing of it. In 2008, the EPA reported that Americans generate roughly 97 billion pounds of food waste a year or 365 pounds per capita (with a population estimated at 300 million).  Much of that food is edible.

Meanwhile, the Economic Research Service concluded that 2.3 million American households are food insecure; “meaning their access to food is limited by a lack of money or other resources.” Implementing strategies to prevent food waste from entering landfills will not be enough to significantly reduce waste on the retail level; long term solutions must include community and government efforts to prevent edible food from ever being labeled as “waste,” and to use non-edible food residuals as a resource for animal feed or energy production.

The Department of Sanitation for New York City found that each day, 10,385 tons of “putrescible waste” was produced each day in commercial establishments. Putrescible waste is waste that contains organic material and is likely to decompose. About one third of that is recycled, but the rest goes to the landfill. Despite their relatively small volume, a 2006 United Nations report showed that 4% of all greenhouse gases are emitted by rotting organics in landfills.

Food discarded from supermarkets is often not rotten or inedible. During my experience looking through grocery store garbage with a group of anti-capitalists known as Freegans, I saw a lot of packaged, prepared food that seemed to have been discarded merely because the “best by” or “sell by” food dates were approaching. It is important to note that the federal government does not require or regulate these dates, although some states do.  The expiration date, when calculated, makes allowances for storage conditions that are not ideal, so the FDA acknowledges that expired food is potentially safe. “Sell by” and “best by” dates are affixed by the manufacturer and carry even less authority.

From the fields and factory farms where our food is grown, and during its distribution, retail and consumption, between 27% and 33% of our entire food supply is wasted.  In 2009, the USDA claims we have 3,900 calories available for every man, woman, and infant in our country. Because most people need between 1,800 and 2,200 calories per day to maintain their body weight, we have a massive excess of calories available.

Not surprisingly, food consumption is up. The Economic Resource Service found that food consumption was rose 16% from 1970 to 2003.

Once food has been labeled “waste” and is waiting on the sidewalk, it can be used as a resource for energy, fertilizer or animal feed and avoid going to the landfill. In 1997, Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx, one of the largest food distribution facilities in the world, began hauling 840 tons of organics each month to farms on Long Island for composting.

The NY Department of Sanitation offers advice to food service managers, in order to reduce food waste. The recommendations include using thorough, frequent inventories to prevent over-purchasing and spoilage, implementing computerized ingredient tracking systems for restaurants, ensuring perishable food is properly stored, donating to emergency food programs, and working with a renderer or composter.

Community-level reform of retail food waste would result in increased awareness through media coverage and the creation of useful models for larger scale change (that would provide significant reductions in waste going to landfills and emitting methane).  Retailers, especially restaurateurs, can increase prices or decrease serving sizes to discourage plate waste.  At supermarkets, rather than disposing of packaged goods that are about to reach their “sell by” or “best by” dates, retailers could offer steep discounts, and develop practices to freeze or otherwise preserve products like bread and produce that is ripe and may not be sold before rotting.

Government policy changes, though more time consuming and complicated, can be more effective then grassroots activism. Subsidizing composting companies or working to implement municipal composting facilities would make programs more affordable and accessible. Not only should food composting be rewarded, but reducing waste output totals should have benefits that encourage retailers to work toward a closed loop system.

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