Half the American Harvest Goes to Waste

TUCSON, Arizona, November 23, 2004 (ENS) - When University of Arizona anthropologist Dr. Timothy W. Jones sits down to his Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, he is not likely to put more on his plate than he can eat. Jones has spent the last 10 years measuring food loss, in the farms and orchards, warehouses, retail stores and dining rooms of America and he knows how much of the U.S. harvest goes to waste - nearly 50 percent.

A research associate with the the Contemporary Archaeology Project at the University of Arizona, Jones has studied food waste in detail, working for the past eight years under a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


A sampling of America's rich bounty of edibles (Two photos courtesy USDA)
He has learned that many tons of edible food are landfilled that could feed people who need it, and he calculated that if the rate of loss was even partially corrected, U.S. consumers and corporations could save tens of billions of dollars every year.

Last year, as part of his research, Jones and his students analyzed the garbage of 200 American families in Arizona and Delaware to learn how much edible or once edible food gets thrown out each day.

The researchers listed and weighed every kernel of corn, slice of bread, half-eaten salad, and day-old casserole that their test families threw in the garbage.

They found that, on average, a family discards 1.28 pounds of food a day, about 470 pounds per household per year, or 14 percent of all food brought into the house.

"Some people believe that you cannot really store food safely in the fridge," Jones said at the time. "Anything that's left over automatically gets thrown in the trash. Then there are households, where, well, as long as it's not gooey or furry, you can eat it."


Jones estimates an average family of four tosses out $590 per year in meat, fruits, vegetables and grain products.

Fifteen percent of that waste includes products still within their expiration date but never opened, he found.

Nationwide, Jones says, household food waste adds up to $43 billion, making it a serious economic problem.

Americans throw out about three times as much food today as they did 20 years ago, Jones found during research in 2001.

Jones and his research team that year found that Americans threw away 1.3 pounds of food every day, or 474.5 pounds annually, roughly the same result as the researchers got with the 200 test families in 2003.

But compared with 1980s, the amount of discarded food has tripled compared to the three pounds of garbage each household threw away during a week at that time.

At the same time, the number of hungry people in the United States is increasing. According to USDA figures, in 2002, 34.9 million Americans lived in households experiencing food insecurity, compared to 33.6 million in 2001, and 31 million in 1999.

The USDA estimates that 30 percent of milk and other dairy products, grain products, fresh fruits, and vegetables were tossed, while only 15 percent of meat, dried beans, nuts, and processed fruits and vegetables were disposed of in landfills.


The state of North Carolina composted 11 tons of food waste during the 11 days of the 1999 Special Olympics World Summer Games. (Photo courtesy NCDENR)
Jones says these losses can be viewed in terms of environmental degradation. He estimates that cutting food waste by half could reduce adverse environmental impacts by 25 percent through reduced landfill use, less soil depletion and less need for applications of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

In addition to households, Jones is currently researching retail food waste, another sector where annual losses run in the tens of billions of dollars.

Much food is wasted before it ever leaves the farm. In his work with growers, Jones has learned that the apple industry loses about 12 percent of its crop between the tree and the marketplace, but that steady rate of loss compares favorably with that of other fruit and vegetable growers.

Jones says growers "will roam their fields while on their cell phones to the commodity markets in Chicago," and attempt to bring home a financial windfall. If they guess wrong, an entire crop could left in the field to be plowed under.

Jones says there are three simple ways most people can reduce their own food waste. First, they can buy carefully, planning menus and making up specific grocery lists.

Knowing what is stored in the refrigerator and pantry that should be eaten while it is still useable, is a second way to conserve food. And, Jones says, people can get into the habit of freezing leftovers to be eaten later.