So much wasted food, yet so much hunger

our view

As South Sound families prepare to gather for Thanksgiving Day dinner Thursday, here’s some food for thought.

About 40 percent of the food grown in the United States is tossed in the trash. In most cases, the food that lands in the garbage was still safe to eat.

The average person in this country throws away about 20 pounds of food per year, according to a recent food survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The average family of four tosses out food valued at $2,275 each year. The value of this wasted food is pegged at $165 billion a year. Grocery stores alone discard about $15 billion of unsold fruits and vegetables annually.

At a time when one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to ward off hunger, food waste of this proportion is outrageous. Families, communities, food policy experts, the food industry and elected officials all need to make a conscious effort to take a bite out of food waste.

Food waste is particularly problematic in the United States. Consumers here are wasting 50 percent more food today than they were in 1970. When compared with households in Southeast Asia, American families waste 10 times more food, according to the NRDC.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Over the past five years in the United Kingdom, a concerted public awareness campaign to reduce food waste by consumers has helped cut household food waste by 18 percent.

Here are some things that the U.S. could do. Reducing food waste should start with a comprehensive government study to pin down the weak links in the food chain that lead to waste. Then the government should set an aggressive goal to reverse decades of apathy on the subject of wasted food.

Something that would help is to standardize and clarify the meaning of date labels on food. We have too many labels, including “sell by,” “best used by” and “use-by.” None of them mean that the food is no longer safe to eat, but many consumers assume that’s the case when those dates arrive.

Consumers can help by avoiding impulse purchases at the grocery story and being smarter about storing and freezing food. And when it comes to cooking, consider smaller portions to avoid leftovers. And when dishing up food plates, remember: “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”

State and local governments can help with food waste prevention programs like one involving the state Department of Ecology, Thurston County Solid Waste and the Thurston County Food Bank.

State and local grants are helping the food bank collect, transport and repackage prepared foods from local eateries. By donating food, restaurants can keep food from going to waste while helping feed the hungry.

“I feel bad about food waste,” Kenny Pugh, owner of Old School Pizzeria in Olympia and one of the participants in the food collection program, said in the county’s “Talkin’ Trash newsletter. “I can’t ever make the perfect amount, so I love to see it go to people, instead of ending up in the trash.”

Make a concerted effort to reduce food waste, starting with Thanksgiving Day dinner tomorrow. Let’s keep the scraps to a minimum and put all that good food to use.