Outlook's Third Annual Spring Cleaning List

Let's get rid of leftovers

Americans waste food — quite a bit of it. This includes the bites we leave on our plates at dinner, the stuff we let rot in our fridges and the crops that never even reach the grocery store. All together, we waste as much as half the food produced in the United States, even as up to 49 million Americans don't have consistent access to adequate, healthy food.

It's a national and a personal problem. A 2004 study by the University of Arizona found that most households throw out 14 percent of the food they buy; that adds up to $43 billion worth of food going to waste each year. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as much as $60 billion in food from restaurants, stores, food processors and farms is never eaten, either.

Thirty-four million tons of these "leftovers" enter our waste stream each year — accounting for 14 percent of all municipal waste, according to the EPA. This is costly for the planet, since all of that food ends up decomposing in landfills and producing methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming.

We could avoid waste in the fields by encouraging farmers to allow volunteers to glean vegetables for food pantries and soup kitchens. We should also urge grocers and food-service providers to find ways to reduce waste where possible and donate what can't be saved.

Most consumers could also use more education about food refrigeration and storage to better understand how long a fresh product will last and whether its life can be extended in the freezer. (I particularly love StillTasty.com, a cheat-sheet for deciding what to eat and what to toss.)

You are what you eat — and what you don't eat, for that matter. We need to start paying attention to the food we leave behind, too.


Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics for Mother Jones magazine.

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