In a nation preoccupied by food, one vital question goes unasked

As a nation, we spend a lot of time preoccupied by our food. How was it grown? How much will it cost? Have I eaten too much, or will I get enough to eat?

Here’s a question that is perhaps not asked enough: how much food ends up not on our plates, but in the trash? You might be surprised.  

When the average American family of four leaves approximately 1.2 million calories uneaten annually, essentially tossing the equivalent of $1,500 into the trash each year, food waste becomes not only a food security issue, but an affordability issue. The average American family of four throws away 1,160 pounds of uneaten food annually—about the weight of a grand piano.

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Food loss and waste is also a food security and nutrition issue. It is a sad reality that millions of people in the United States and around the world do not get enough to eat. Yet, the amount of food wasted worldwide each year is estimated to be worth between $750 billion and $1 trillion and capable of feeding the estimated 805 million people around the world who do not get enough to eat.
Food waste is also a natural resources issue. All of the resources that went into producing that wasted food – including the land, labor, water, and other inputs – could have been saved or gone to uses of higher value for society. At the same time that we are talking about meeting the nutritional needs of a growing global population using increasingly limited natural resources, 28 percent of the world’s agricultural area is used annually to produce food that’s never eaten.     

Food loss and waste is a climate change issue. Wasted food is the single largest component of disposed U.S. municipal solid waste, and accounts for a significant portion of U.S. methane emissions. Landfills are the third largest source of methane in the United States.  

We have to do better for the environment, for our nation’s precious natural resources, and for each other. That is why, for the first time ever, the United States is setting a national food waste reduction goal.
The new goal, which calls for a 50 percent reduction by 2030, is being unveiled a week before world leaders will gather at the United Nations General Assembly in New York to address sustainable development practices, including sustainable production and consumption. The new goal demonstrates America’s leadership on a global level in getting wholesome food to people who need it, efficiently using natural resources, cutting environmental pollution, and promoting innovative approaches for reducing food loss and waste. 

This seminal goal is entirely voluntary, and depends on the leadership and partnership of charitable organizations, faith organizations, the private sector and local, state and Tribal governments to reduce food loss and waste. It builds on the work of the 4,000 participant strong U.S. Food Waste Challenge, launched in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency as a platform for leaders and organizations across the food chain to share best practices on ways to reduce, recover and recycle food loss and waste.  

For example, wholesome food that ends up in a landfill could help to feed families in need through donations to food pantries and soup kitchens. City Harvest, which pioneered food rescue in 1982, will collect 55 million pounds of excess food this year from restaurants, grocers, bakeries, manufacturers, restaurants, and farms to help feed the nearly 1.4 million New Yorkers facing hunger.

Food loss and waste is a serious threat to the global environment and the American economy. Everyone—farmers and ranchers, food processors and grocery stores, local and national governments, and individual consumers—has a responsibility to reduce food waste at every step of the supply chain.

Vilsack is the 30th secretary of Agriculture, serving since 2009. Stephens is executive director of City Harvest in New York City,