The Uneaten Majority

By Jean Blish Siers *
Reading over a National Resources Defense Council report today, I stumbled on this graphic.

Food Consumed Versus Food Loss

Even working daily to try to save fresh fruits and vegetables from going to waste, I found this shocking: We actually waste more fruits and vegetables than we consume! According to research from the Food and Agricultural Organization (which is part of the United Nations,) we consume only 48% of the fresh produce grown. Let that soak in a minute. If a farmer raises 100 pounds of potatoes, on average only 48 pounds of them will be eaten. The other 52 pounds will be discarded at some point in the supply chain.

The NRDC breaks down losses into five categories: Production, Post-harvest Handling and Storage, Processing and Packing, Distribution and Retail, and Consumer. According to the FAO, fruits and vegetables sustain the greatest losses in three areas:

During the production phase, up to 20% of produce is lost because of blemishes; quality standards for size, shape, and color; and transportation and labor issues. That’s the point where we gleaners can get in a field and gather what is rejected but still perfectly edible.

At the distribution and retail level, up to 12% of produce is lost. Again, cosmetic imperfections are huge. Retailers feel compelled to reject anything that doesn’t look perfect. They also feel they must overstock coolers and shelves to give a feeling of abundance, and throw out anything that doesn’t look at its freshest. An industry consultant estimates that one out of seven loads of perishables delivered to a supermarket is thrown away.

And finally, consumers (you and me!) throw out approximately 28% of our fresh produce. “Cheap” food causes us to buy more than we need or can use. We buy a bag of potatoes or apples, or a box or bag of salad greens, and can get through only a portion before they go bad. Inadequate storage causes food to spoil. Lack of meal planning leads us to impulse buy, or to buy a large amount of something and use just a little bit. We might buy an unusual item with good intentions and then let it go to waste because, well, what do you DO with kohlrabi?

Here’s the good news: A 1987 study found that folks who lived through the Great Depression and the rationing of World War II typically wasted half as much food as other age groups. So wasting food is a learned behavior. It means we can also learn how not to waste food. Hopefully it won’t take anything as dramatic as a world war to wake us up. Hopefully we can look at the environmental, economic, and moral costs of food waste and start turning the tide on loss.

*  Jean Blish Siers is SoSA’s Charlotte Area Gleaning Coordinator.