On a hot day this summer near Lincoln, Neb., Jack Chappelle was knee-deep in trash. He was wading into rotting vegetables, half-eaten burgers and tater tots. Lots of tater tots.
“You can get a lot of tater tots out of schools,” Chappelle said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s elementary, middle school or high school. Tater tots. Bar none.”
Chappelle, a solid waste consultant with Engineering Solutions & Design in Kansas City, Kan., knows first hand that the U.S., one tater tot at a time, wastes a staggering amount of food.
By some estimates, as much as 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten — $165 billion worth of food each year. And although some cities, grocers and restaurants are trying to do more to cut waste, the Environmental Protection Agency said food waste tipped the scale at 35 million tons in 2012, the most recent year for which estimates are available.
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Food waste, and efforts to combat it, provide work for Chappelle’s company, which local governments hire to literally sort through their garbage and find out what it’s made of. To do that for Lincoln, Chappelle trudged through its Bluff Road Landfill — and lots of the waste he found was food. Food from homes, restaurants, stores and schools.
“In the country you get more peelings. You get more vegetables,” Chappelle said. “When you’re in the city you get a lot more fast-food containers with half eaten food in them. A lot more pizza boxes.”
What Chappelle finds every day on the job mirrors the reality that food is the largest single source of waste in the United States. More food ends up in landfills than plastic or paper.
Farmers have made gigantic advancements in food production over the last century, ensuring more food flows from farm to table than at any time in human history. But too much of it ends up in landfills.
What a waste
Cities have an economic stake in reducing food waste, simply because landfills cost money to run. And there are environmental gains to be made.
When food decomposes in a landfill it’s sealed away from oxygen. That causes it to release methane rather than just carbon dioxide, which experts say is 20 to 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
Like paper, glass and other recyclables, Chappelle said, the best option is to keep food out of the landfill where it takes up valuable space.
“From an economics perspective if you don’t throw as much away, the cells” — compacted areas of a landfill — “don’t fill up as fast so you’re not spending as much money in the operation of the landfill,” Chappelle said. “It’s directly a cost-benefit relationship.”
Food enters the waste stream at every link along the chain of food production. The EPA estimates about 40 to 50 percent of food waste comes from consumers and 50 to 60 percent from businesses.
“We just have so much of an abundance of food that we don’t realize the value of it,” said Dan Nickey, associate director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, which works with businesses to cut back on how much food goes into the garbage.
“I think it’s part of the culture today compared to when our parents grew up. Now we don’t necessarily look at food as a resource, we look at it as a given.”
Not everyone can afford to be careless with food. Forty-nine million Americans have trouble putting meals on the table, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And, Nickey said, while those families struggle, the billions worth of food wasted weighs down the economy.
“If we can reduce the amount of food [waste], just think of the amount of money this country can save,” Nickey said.
Grocery stores and restaurants serve up more than 400 million pounds of food each year, but nearly a third of it never makes it to a stomach.
With grocers putting out large displays of unblemished, fresh produce, and restaurant portions growing in recent years, many grocery stores and restaurants toss out a mountain of perfectly edible food. But grocers say they’re simply responding to what shoppers want.
At her local Hy-Vee grocery in Independence, Shirley Phelps was looking for the perfect bunch of bananas for her cereal.
“I don’t want them too ripe,” she said, grabbing a bunch of medium-sized bananas still tinged with green — not the neighboring bunch that had already started to turn color.
“They’re too ripe,” she said. “They have brown spots all over them and they would be banana bread before I had a chance to try to do anything with them.”
Historically, produce such as bananas dotted with brown spots would be headed for the landfill because shoppers usually expect their fruits and vegetables to look great.
For instance, said Paul Hoppman, store director at the Hy-Vee in Independence, the riper banana is “perfectly good,” but “it won’t sell because it just doesn’t look good.”
Hoppman said presentation is paramount to keeping business. That means culling the aisles for fruit deemed too ripe and making sure the stands are stocked to the brim with perfect bounty year round.
“It’s a fine line you’re walking, having the best fruit out there that is going to taste good to the customer but not breaking down yet,” Hoppman said. “So we’re always rotating” out the less desirable produce.
Wichita-based GreenAcres Market, with seven locations including one in the Northland’s Briarcliff Village, said customers want their purchases to have as long a shelf life as possible once they get them home. So it rotates items out often, but that doesn’t mean they go to waste. Bananas, for example, might be frozen to use to make smoothies, or be sent to the bakery for banana bread or banana muffins.
GreenAcres also donates to Harvesters—The Community Network, as do many grocers. Kansas City’s Price Chopper stores partner in a Chop Hunger program, donating perishables to Harvesters.
Compost progress; deli challenges
To reduce the food waste that gets trucked to a landfill, many grocery stores are turning to compost. The food still isn’t getting eaten, of course, but composting companies do turn discarded food into compost that will enrich soil.
GreenAcres says it contracts with Missouri Organic to take items that are compostable, and Balls Food Stores in the Kansas City area says on its Hen House website that it composts 65 tons of material monthly.
The Hy-Vee store in Independence has cut its landfill deliveries from three times a week to three times a month, thanks to a compost pile. Hoppman also works with church food banks, which swing by daily to pick up unsold food, and get it to the hungry. That earns the company a small tax write-off.
Grocery stores around the country also are using software that projects how much food to order from the warehouse so they’re not stuck with massive amounts of extra. But, Hoppman said, those advancements can do only so much.
“As the stores have grown, that food waste [grew] more and more,” he said. “My progression of working in stores was 20,000- to a 30,000- to a 60,000-square-foot store, and then this store is 82,000 square feet.”
Also complicating grocers’ efforts is the rise of deli offerings.
“To me the biggest amount of wasted food is prepared food,” said Katy Bunder, executive director of Food Finders, a food rescue program in Indiana that redistributes unsellable food to food banks.
Programs like Food Finders are one way grocery stores and restaurants are trying to cut down on food waste. But Bunder said she’s scrambling to deal with waste from pre-made meals as more stores cater to convenience shoppers with ready-made dishes.
“We can’t repackage it, freeze it, hold on to it and then distribute it through our mobile pantry the next day,” Bunder said.
These appetizer plates, specialized salads and dinner dishes ready to microwave are in high demand at grocery stores and so long as it’s making good money for the stores, the selections will grow and the aisle will expand.
Another contributor to retail food waste is consumer confusion over date labels. Consumers often mistake “sell by” and “best by” dates for expiration dates, according to Londa Nwadike.
“The dates are just kind of an indication of how long the food has been around, but they’re not really an indication of how safe the food is,” said Nwadike, the state extension consumer food safety specialist for both Kansas and Missouri.
Nwadike said shoppers overlook perfectly safe food because there is no uniform standard for date labeling. Indeed, she said food producers pick the date to ensure the best quality of their product so you eat it at its most tasty and, in turn, buy it again. That leads to plenty of edible, healthful food getting tossed away for fear it’s not safe to eat.
A study done in the United Kingdom attributed a full 20 percent of avoidable food waste to food being thrown out in homes because of label confusion. That confusion also sticks grocery store executives such as Hoppman with healthful food that no one will buy. The only product with a federally required date label is infant formula — but only because nutrients in the product eventually degrade and not because of foodborne illness concerns.
Nwadike said a transparent, uniform date label policy and consumer education could mitigate that problem.
On the home front, Ashley Zanolli, who works on food waste for the EPA, helped create a program aimed at helping families reduce their share of food that’s wasted called Food: Too Good to Waste. It originated in Seattle, but there are plans to roll it out nationwide this fall. For now, it is being tested in a handful of cities around the country including Honolulu, Oakland, Calif., and Iowa City, Iowa.
In Iowa City, Sherri Erkel’s family is part of the pilot study, measuring what people are throwing out at home.
On a recent fajita night in the Erkel house, some half-eaten tortillas, picked over beans, onion skins and other scraps went into a plastic container on the kitchen counter. Erkel called it “the green bucket of judgment.”
Once a week she weighs what they’ve thrown out. She hung the plastic liner from a scale and found they had thrown out 4 pounds of food in just a couple of days.
“These aren’t water melon rinds or anything, so that’s just food on our plate we didn’t eat. So we’ve thrown away 4 pounds of food in two days. Judgment,” she said, laughing.
Seeing how much food her family throws away convinced Erkel and her family to take food waste more seriously. She wants to put less food in the bucket so she’s following some of the EPA’s tips. For instance, her family started planning meals and following a shopping list. They also set aside a shelf in the refrigerator for what needs to be eaten first.
One in seven families in the U.S. aren’t able buy the kind of food she’s throwing away. Erkel thinks about her family’s role in that.
“Food production is not an issue,” she said. “We produce enough food but we’re throwing away all this food, and a mile away people don’t have enough. So that’s the first step I think.”
Grant Gerlock and Kristofor Husted are reporters for Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media stations in the Midwest. Harvest is based at KCUR 89.3 in Kansas City.
Stories on the air
Hear Harvest Public Media radio reports on food waste all week during Morning Edition on KCUR-FM 89.3, and on its website. An accompanying TV special, “Tossed Out: Food Waste in America,” will air at 8 p.m. Friday on KCPT Channel 19. For more on the series, go to HarvestPublicMedia.org/FoodWaste.