Cut food waste, save lives

Imagine that every time someone sat down for a meal he scraped aside about half of the food on the plate and threw it in the trash. It would be absurd — an unconscionable waste of edible food, and an expensive loss as well.

Yet that is effectively what happens every day across the sprawling supply chains that provide Americans with food, from farm to warehouse to truck to store to dinner table. An estimated 40 percent of otherwise edible food is wasted, much of it ending up in landfills.

Farmers leave subpar produce to rot, trucks deliver bigger shipments than stores can handle, restaurants face fluctuating demand and families toss out uneaten, unspoiled food.

Tackling those inefficiencies — which cost U.S. farmers, businesses and consumers some $165 billion annually — is the goal of an effort led by the Environmental Protection Agency to cut food waste in half by 2030.

And there is a substantial environmental component to food waste. Food production accounts for about 10 percent of all the energy consumed in the U.S. It involves about half of the country’s habitable land and takes up 80 percent of freshwater use.

Recent research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that the agricultural emissions associated with extra food more than quadrupled between 1965 and 2010, from 130 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to 530 million tons. These estimates don’t include carbon emissions associated with energy use, so food waste’s carbon footprint was even higher — more like 3 billion tons.

Meanwhile, 14 percent of households nationwide are considered somewhat or very “food insecure” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning that they lack consistent access to even basic nutrition.

In other words, food waste is an economic, environmental and social disaster in our nation — and one worth aggressively addressing. To that end, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the EPA began working last November to develop a strategy for reducing the unnecessary loss of edible food.

The top priority to emerge from the summit was educating grocery stores and restaurants about how to better donate unused food to shelters, food banks and other non-profits. Some businesses hesitate to donate food out of concern that they would be liable or face bad publicity if someone gets sick. But state and federal laws provide strong protections for those who donate food “in good faith.”

Most losses happen outside of restaurants and grocery stores, with up to 30 percent in homes. Sometimes people buy more food than they can eat, or cook too much and let leftovers spoil. It’s difficult to eliminate those sources of waste other than through more conscientious shopping and cooking practices. But the most egregious losses are totally preventable.

Just change the label.

“Sell by” and “best by” dates stamped on food packages are almost never regulated by any federal agency, and usually should be viewed as a suggestion rather than meaningful measures of edibility.

Other steps, like supporting local farmers markets, donating to or volunteering at food banks and composting food scraps can also cut back on waste at home.

And it isn’t just a U.S. problem. Latin America either loses or wastes 348,000 tons of food daily. According to a U.N. committee, that wasted food could possibly feed more than 37 percent of the global population suffering from hunger.

Significantly reducing food waste at the national scale will require the coordinated efforts of government agencies, farmers, truckers, grocery stores, restaurants, non-profits, other businesses and individuals. But just being aware of the problem can go a long way toward helping solve it.

So the next time you go to the grocery store, imagine throwing away 40 percent of the items in your cart. Imagine the price paid for that waste — and not just in dollars.

Then imagine how much money — and how many lives — could be saved by significantly reducing those costs.