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Dana Gunders' Posts

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U.S. joins world to take on challenge of food waste

  Less than a year ago, concern over wasted food was almost imperceptible amidst U.S. government agencies. Tuesday, however, the United States joined the ranks of countries around the world who are taking food waste seriously. Kudos to USDA and EPA for their speedy turnaround, as evidenced by their announcement of the U.S. Food Waste Challenge. The devil is in the details, of course, but I’m cautiously optimistic that this is a great step toward a more economically, socially, and environmentally streamlined food system. With the announcement, USDA has committed to several actions to reduce, recover, and recycle wasted food across …

Read more: Food, Living

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No bad apples: Grocery store cuts waste and cost by selling imperfect fruit

apples-foodstar-andronicos-nrdcOn the surface, it’s a common display. A bin of apples with a sale sign greets customers as they enter the grocery store. Behind the scenes, however, it’s unchartered territory. Those apples are too small to be considered sufficient quality, or grade, for retail grocery stores. They were destined to be juice, cattle feed, or maybe even landfill waste until a few crafty folks and a bold supermarket decided to break the grade barrier.

Meet FoodStar and its courageous partner Andronico’s Community Market, a small Northern California grocery chain. Together, they are taking a chance on the idea that maybe we consumers aren’t as picky as most supermarkets seem to think we are. Maybe we’d be willing to buy a slightly smaller apple that only has 37 percent red coverage instead of the requisite 40 percent needed to qualify as the “fancy” grade that stores usually buy (yes, it’s actually measured). Maybe we consumers would even consider it a score to get a bag of Pink Lady apples for just 69 cents per pound.

Last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a survey of farmers that indicated sometimes as much as 30 percent of fresh produce does not make it off the farm. This is a waste of nutrition in addition to all of the money and resources that went into growing that food. One key driver that causes fruits and veggies to be left on the field or fed to cattle is that they are not cosmetically perfect enough to meet the high standards that grocery stores mandate. Many retailers insist that fruits and veggies meet exact cosmetic criteria, including specifications for size, color, weight, and blemish level -- leading to culling and incorporating waste as part of doing business. Waste, however, is not cheap. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion [PDF] each year in fruit and vegetable losses alone.

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These numbers will help you feel grateful, not wasteful

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Once a year, we feast to celebrate that our ancestors had enough food to survive their first winter, acknowledging that once upon a time food was something to be grateful for. Then the next day, we throw half of it away.

Amidst groans about being more stuffed than the bird itself, Americans will toss a whopping $282 million worth of uneaten turkey into the trash this Thanksgiving, contributing to the $165 billion in uneaten food Americans waste every year. Along with trashing uneaten turkey, they’ll be wasting the resources necessary for its production -- meaning 105 billion gallons of water (enough to supply New York City for over 100 days) and greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 800,000 car trips from New York to San Francisco. That’s enough turkey to provide each American household that is food insecure with more than 11 additional servings (17.9 million American households suffer from food insecurity).

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Super size, super waste: What whopping portions do to the planet

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McDonald’s has a pretty unsavory reputation when it comes to public health. Lately the company has taken some steps to improve its image, launching vegetarian restaurants in India and putting fresh apples into Happy Meals. But there’s something at the core of its business that has at least the potential to do some good for both our waistlines and a different kind of waste: our waste of food. McDonald's offers flexible portions.

Walk through those golden arches and you have your choice of a cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, quarter pounder with cheese, or double quarter pounder with cheese. Chicken nuggets? Do you want four, six, nine, or 20? Fries with that or no? It’s choice, and we Americans love choice. But it also means only ordering (and only spending money on) the food we actually intend to eat.

Of course, simply providing choice is not the whole picture. How many people actually opt for the plain single hamburger when the double is just a few cents more expensive? Turns out, not many.

In 1955, McDonald’s introduced a new product line -- french fries. The original portion weighed 2.4 ounces (and had 210 calories). Today, that product is known as a small order of french fries, and is normally overlooked for the super size, at 7.1 ounces (and 610 calories). What’s more, the largest order of french fries in the United States is a whopping 37 percent larger than the largest size available in the United Kingdom. That’s a lot of fried potato.

Consider how portion sizes of some other common foods have grown over the past 40 or so years:

  • The average chicken Caesar salad doubled in calories.
  • The average chocolate chip cookie quadrupled in calories.
  • Our plates have grown to hold all those portions, too. The surface area of the average dinner plate expanded by 36 percent between 1960 and 2007.
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Dear U.S. government, please get your food waste act together

This past January, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2020 and designated 2014 as the “European year against food waste.” Members of the European Parliament have called improving the efficiency of our food system and reducing food wastage “a matter of urgency,” stating that:

The most important problem in the future will be to tackle increased demand for food, as it will outstrip supply. We can no longer afford to stand idly by while perfectly edible food is being wasted. This is an ethical but also an economic and social problem, with huge implications for the environment.

Additionally, the United Kingdom government has helped conduct a public awareness campaign called Love Food Hate Waste that plastered London with fancy billboards encouraging people to waste less food.

And what has the U.S. government done to tackle food waste? Close to nothing.

OK, that’s not entirely true. During World War II, the U.S. government had a massive campaign, with posters that still make for good kitchen decorations, to discourage wasted food in order to save food for the army. One of my favorites is “When you take more than you can eat, you cheat your buddies in the fleet.”

But since then, there hasn’t been a whole lot of action. The EPA runs a laudable-for-its-meager-budget Food Recovery Challenge that provides recognition and shares best practices for businesses preventing and recovering food waste. There’s also one team at USDA which, as only part of its responsibilities, collects some information about food losses at the retail and consumer levels of the supply chain. Other than that, the government’s involvement is pretty barren.

Our neighbors across the pond show us we’ve got a lot of catching up to do in terms of prioritizing food waste reduction at a national level. It is due time for the U.S. government to act on the food waste crisis with real urgency and leadership as well. 

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Don’t toss your cookies: Curbing the crisis of food waste

Americans waste about half our food. (Photo by Robyn Mackenzie/Shutterstock.)

Imagine leaving the grocery store with three bags filled to the brim with your favorite foods. As you walk through the parking lot, one slips out of your hand. You look at it, shrug, and just keep walking.

Seems ridiculous, right? But that is essentially what is occurring throughout our food system. And in a time of drought and skyrocketing food prices, we simply can’t afford to be this inefficient.

People all around the world are investing time, land, water, energy, and loads of other resources to grow, store, process, and transport food, only for nearly half of that food to be thrown away. Those potatoes on a breakfast platter get shrugged at because of a low-carb diet. The cheese, for which the kid screamed bloody murder, only gets one bite before that kid is off to play again. The chips remain at the bottom of the nacho plate, because who can really eat that many chips?

In the United States today, about 40 percent of all food goes uneaten. Each year Americans are throwing away the equivalent of $165 billion in uneaten food, making food the single largest component of solid waste in our landfills. This costs the average family of four between $1,350 and $2,275 annually.

Yesterday, Natural Resources Defense Council released a report and kicked off a food waste blog series investigating the causes and extent of our food losses at every level of the supply chain, and how to get the most out of our food system through smart efficiency solutions.

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A look at the $175 in your compost

Photo: Melissa

Have you ever considered what that rotten food in your refrigerator costs? The average American family of four throws out an estimated $130-175 per month in spoiled and discarded food. That's real money going straight into the garbage or compost bin instead of paying off your credit card bills.

Don't get me wrong -- I love compost. It's just not the best use of the staggering amount of resources that are needed to grow all the food that never even gets eaten, including the money you spent to buy it. If you don't eat half of that $10 fish, that's $5 you're throwing away.

Collectively, we consumers are responsible for more wasted food than farmers, grocery stores, or any other part of the food supply chain. We're also wasting far more food than ever before, as the average American today wastes 50 percent more food than 40 years ago. The truth is the implications of our wasteful habits with food are just not on most of our radars.

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Eat leftovers, save the world

Photo: Patrick Gage KelleyAs if turkey pot pie and turkey a la king aren't enticing enough on their own, here's another reason to eat leftovers this holiday season: About 1 million tons of CO2, 95 billion gallons of water, and $275 million will be thrown away this Thanksgiving in the form of leftover turkey. The USDA reports that 35 percent of perfectly good turkey meat in the U.S. does not get eaten after it is purchased by consumers (and that's not including bones). This compares with only 15 percent for chicken. Why is so much more turkey wasted than chicken? "Possibly because …

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‘Use-by’ dates: A myth that needs busting

 

Photo by Frank Farm.

Here's a superbly kept secret: You know all those dates you see on food products that say "sell by," "use by," and "best before"? Those dates do not indicate the safety of your food, and generally speaking, they're not regulated.

I couldn't believe it either, but a quick look at USDA's food labeling site confirms that the only product for which "use-by" dates are federally regulated is infant formula. Beyond that, some states regulate dates for some products, but generally "use-by" and "best-by" dates are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality.

Suggestions. For peak quality. That's all.

If this is news to you, you're not alone. Research on date labeling in the U.K. by the organization WRAP shows that 45 to 49 percent of consumers misunderstand the meaning of the date labels, resulting in an enormous amount of prematurely discarded food. In fact, WRAP estimates that a full 20 percent of food waste is linked to date labeling confusion. Of course, that also means 20 percent more sales for manufacturers recommending those dates. After all, if your milk goes bad, you don't stop drinking milk; you just go to the store and buy some more.

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