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  • Paola Scharberg

Fridge to Trash: Food Waste in America

How much do you spend on groceries every week? How much of last week’s groceries are currently in the trash bin? Food is not cheap in the United States, which may be the reason why in 2018 more than 37 million Americans struggled with hunger. My local grocery store sells a full watermelon for $2.99, a pound of peaches for the $1.99, a single bell pepper for 89 cents, a pound of boneless chicken breasts for $4.19, and a box of chocolate chip cookies for $1.99. In St. Louis the average household spends a little over $350 a month on groceries and $625 total on food. However, one third of this never gets consumed, and ends up in the landfill instead.

In Spain, where I spent most of my life, I could walk out of the store with four of five bags full of vegetables, fruits, eggs, and meat for 20 or 30 Euros ($22 to $33 approximately). Currently, at a Spanish grocery store you can buy a full watermelon for 0.59€ ($0.67), over two pounds of peaches for less than $2.00, over two pounds of boneless chicken breasts for $5.66, and a box of chocolate chip cookies for $1.67.

At grocery stores in the US, fresh and healthy often costs more.
At grocery stores in the US, fresh and healthy often costs more.

According to the United States department of agriculture (USDA), between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply in the U.S. goes to waste, this means that 133 billion pounds of food never gets eaten every year. This happens at every level of the supply, from the farm, to the retail, to the household stage. Lets take fruits and vegetables as an example, according to a study done by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 20 percent of produce is wasted at the production level; 3 percent at the postharvest, handling and storage; 1 percent at the processing and packaging level; 12 percent at distribution and retail; and 28 percent at the final consumer level. As you can imagine, there are many issues that go along with this, especially if we consider how little is composted compared to how much ends up in landfills.

Food waste at the farm level is mostly out of our control, however, there is something we can do to mitigate this loss at the retail level and, without a doubt, and there is much we can do to alleviate the loss at the household level. The NRDC report, Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, explains how the losses at the farming level fall into two categories: food that is never harvested, and food that is lost between harvest and sale. Weather, pests, and disease are some of the factors that cause produce to not be harvested. However, economics also play a part. Growers may leave some crops in the field if market prices are too low because they won’t cover costs after labor and transport. Labor shortages and changing immigration laws can also have an effect on food losses. Employees are also trained to select the produce that will pass minimum quality standards such as size, shape, color, and time of ripeness. Feeding America estimates that, “more than 6 billion pounds of fresh produce go unharvested or unsold each year.”

I spoke to some friends about the types of foods that they dispose of and how much. Fortunately, I have very environmentally conscious friends and they either shop small or compost what they don’t eat, which are mostly fruits and vegetables. Lauren, a biologist from Philadelphia says she composts much of what she doesn’t eat or gives it to her pet turtles. These are normally bananas that ripened a bit much or oranges she didn’t get to eat. Wanda works in sustainability and said that living in an apartment doesn’t allow her to compost although she does recycle. She also admitted that buying and cooking for one can be difficult and result in throwing away some vegetables that get old. Composting is a great way to dispose of food for several reasons; when food ends up in the landfill it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. The lack of oxygen caused by food scraps inside plastic bags that are weighed down by tons of garbage prevents the decomposing of food. In my home, fruits and vegetables seem to be what go to waste most often, a half tomato that got put into a container and was forgotten about or some lettuce that gets too flimsy.

When it comes to food waste at the retail level, much of the blame can be put on us, the consumers. The report by NRDC explains how retailers work under the assumption that people purchase more when shelves are overstocked with shinny fruits and vegetables, we like to see a pile of apples and oranges towering up. We also like our carrots to be flawless and will prefer to buy the aesthetically perfect banana or eggplant. Other contributors are the confusing “sell by” “use by” or “best by” dates. A prior President of Trader Joe’s stated, “the reality as a regional grocery manager is, if you seea store that has really low waste in its perishables, you are worried. If a store has low waste numbers it can be a sign that they aren’t fully in stock and that the customer experience is suffering.” But, do we suffer if the pile of apples isn’t as high? Does it make an impact on our shopping experience? When did grocery shopping become a reason for an experience, anyway?

A French retail grocery store started a campaign in 2014 in an attempt to reduce waste and gave ugly fruits and vegetables their own aisle selling these at a 30 percent discount. The campaign was a success and the “unfortunate clementine” or the “failed lemon” sold quite well. Why is our obsession with food perfection hindering our perception of what food actually is? Food is about taste, flavor, and most importantly, nutrition.

Nutrition is something that one in five children are lacking in the United States. Perhaps it is because a pound of peaches (three or four) costs $1.99 and a twelve-pack of ramen costs $2.25. When Covid-19 first hit the United States in March, my local grocery store was out of ramen for weeks, although it was never out of tomatoes or strawberries, which are $4.99 for a pound and don’t make for a meal on their own. How many families are sustaining themselves and their children with these instant packets of delicious salty noodles that contain over 1,300 milligrams of sodium, that is more than half of the daily amount recommended by the U.S Food and Drug Administration? My local grocery store recently had a sale for ten packets of Kraft macaroni and cheese for $10. This will feed two to four people depending if it’s a side dish or the main meal. On the other hand, a pound of broccoli at this same store is $1.99. This goes to show how much more expensive it is to cook a healthy meal versus an unwholesome and salty, packaged dinner. If we also tie in the factor that most families in the United States have both parents working and cooking a healthy meal takes time, and more money, why would people choose to spend more time and money? Perhaps if fresh fruits and vegetables were cheaper, it would be an incentive to buy more of them. Packaged foods don’t expire quickly either, therefore can stay in your pantry for much longer.

It takes a lot of natural resources to grow and deliver food like water, fuel, and human labor. And there are many environmental and social consequences of wasting food. We have easy and available options to reduce the amount of food we waste like decreasing the amount we buy, feeding hungry people or animals, and composting are the best options. Food is more than just a basic necessity to survive; it’s a reason to gather with family and friends to celebrate. But we can’t let our fascination and perception of food abundance diminish its value.


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