I’ve been noticing some pretty arresting billboards while driving around Albuquerque lately. The one that really caught my eye (and that’s pictured on top of this article) features a carton of milk with “Best if used” printed on it. “40% of food in America is wasted” reads the ad—it’s not often that a bare statistic can relay such a powerful message. That statistic, which came from a landmark study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, translates to roughly 400 pounds of food per person going into landfills each year.
Why is food waste such a big deal? For one, because it’s food that could be going towards feeding the one in eight Americans who regularly goes hungry. For another, throwing out food—whether because it’s spoiled or we just don’t want it—wastes all of the resources that went into making that food: the freshwater, farmland, manual labor, fertilizers and pesticides needed to grow it, and the energy required to harvest, transport and regulate temperature. Food waste also accounts for 21 percent of the contents of landfills and 37 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions annually in the US.
These ads are from Save the Food, a joint campaign of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Ad Council to increase awareness of the huge nationwide problem of food waste and the changes we can all make to address it. Through their website, Save the Food offers everyday strategies on how to better store food to keep it fresher longer, shopping and meal plans that help you buy the right amount of food in the first place and recipes that use up food scraps you’d normally throw out (strawberry top rosé granita? Yes please.) While food waste is a systemic problem that will require large-scale solutions, those solutions start with the individual decisions we make on a daily basis.
I recently spoke with Andrea Spacht, the Sustainable Food Systems Specialist at NRDC and a part of the Healthy People and Thriving Communities Program about the Save the Food campaign and its origins.
Weekly Alibi: When did Save the Food come to be, and what was the impetus to start this campaign?
Andrea Spacht: The campaign launched its first round of work in April 2016, which includes TV, online video, radio, print, out of home, digital and mobile assets. In the US, we waste more than 50 billion pounds of food in our homes each year. NRDC partnered with the Ad Council to create a PSA campaign encouraging Americans to make simple lifestyle changes and learning how to properly store a wide variety of foods to help “Save the Food.”
How much food, on average, is wasted in America? What are the consequences of this waste? And what do we stand to gain by wasting less?
Estimates vary widely, but in the US, we waste somewhere between 37 million tons (according to EPA) and 102 million tons (according to UN FAO) depending on the data sources, food system stages included and disposal destinations included.
Even with the most sustainable practices, our food system uses enormous resources. Nationwide, food production consumes up to 16 percent of energy, uses almost half of land and accounts for 67 percent of freshwater use. Those resources are used in vain when food goes uneaten. Currently, food waste uses up one-fifth of US cropland, fertilizers and agricultural water, and is a significant contributor to climate change—equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of 37 million cars. That’s a loss of up to $218 billion each year, costing a household of 4 an average of $1,800 annually.
Wasting less food can help stabilize food demand even as population grows, thereby conserving resources for generations to come.
What goals is Save the Food trying to accomplish? How do you go about doing this?
The Save The Food campaign aims to give consumers the resources and tools to prevent food from going to waste. The campaign has two main goals: to raise awareness about food waste and to encourage every American to be a part of the solution. The campaign encourages Americans to make simple lifestyle changes like making shopping lists, freezing food and using leftovers to reduce waste in their own homes.
What are some other food waste projects you’ve worked on at NRDC? How do you work with cities to help them reduce food waste?
NRDC has a robust approach to addressing food waste. We advocate for federal, state and local policy to drive change. We recently completed innovative research to determine the types, quantities and reasons for food waste in the residential and business sectors as well as the potential for surplus food rescue. NRDC is working with cities to create long-term, holistic and replicable approaches for tackling our wasted food challenge. We launched a food waste reduction pilot program in Nashville in 2016, and another in Denver recently.
California has been pretty progressive in introducing new policies that help keep food out of landfills—new “Best if used by” labeling, city-sponsored composting services and Good Samaritan laws that make it easier and safer to donate food—what can New Mexico do at a legislature level to catch up?
New Mexico could replicate any of those policies! New Mexico could implement tax incentives to help farmers and food businesses redirect surplus, wholesome food to food banks and community members facing food insecurity (often called farm-to-foodbank tax incentives). New Mexico could start measuring its food waste and set reduction goals. The state could also invest in infrastructure to help businesses and residents recycle organic matter. Nearly every strategy on our Call To Action could be implemented on the state level (except that strategy 5: standardizing food date labels would have the biggest impact if done on a national scale).
How would you like to see Americans change their eating (and cooking, food storage and food wasting) habits?
There are a variety of tools on savethefood.com to help people better store their food so that it lasts longer, use up the scraps they may have that are still perfectly good food and help folks reimagine the ways they can use the food they already have. But Americans could also patronize restaurants and grocery stores that are limiting the amount of food that they waste. Americans could use their political voices to encourage their policy makers to take meaningful action on addressing food waste.
Visit savethefood.com for more tips on how you can keep food from going to waste, and check out nrdc.