US wastes 30 percent of the food supply annually — how can we fix this?

US wastes 30 percent of the food supply annually — how can we fix this?
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Imagine your only monthly supply of food during the holidays is five meager food rations consisting of cereal, legumes, fortified flour, oil and salt. This represents what a refugee survives on each year and they live in camps for an average of 17 years.   

In stark contrast, picture your cozy beautiful holiday table filled with abundance of the fall harvest season -turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry relish, salad, nut bread, pecan and pumpkin pie just to name a few food items. 

How much of that will be thrown out?

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In the U.S., over a billion pounds of pumpkins are thrown out every year. Apples also are among the most wasted food with almost 40 percent of what is produced winds up discarded. In 2017, the EPA determined that more food than any other single material was the largest contribution to landfills in the U.S. 

A 2016 comprehensive report by ReFed estimates that the U.S. wastes 30 percent of the food supply representing 126 billion pounds of wasted food annually with a street value of over $161 billion dollars.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the United Nations have stated goals of reducing rampant food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030.

However, without a tangible roadmap to underpin this otherwise attainable goal of reducing food waste in our respective states, cities and homes, we are utterly rudderless.

We lack the necessary direction and local policy guidelines to deliver on the 2030 national goal set by USDA and other government agencies, as well as the international goals set by the UN Environment Programme. 

Reducing food waste will help the United States address climate change, as 20 percent of total U.S. methane emissions come from landfills. By feeding families instead of landfills we can help address the 42 million Americans that live in food insecure households as estimated by the EPA. 

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Reducing food waste through intentional redistribution mechanisms, harvesting excess produce from farms, orchards, backyards and gardens that would otherwise go to waste (known as gleaning) and most importantly a concrete action plan will make the necessary impact of change towards a more socially just sustainable future for all in terms of food waste. 

After 16 years as a food justice advocate for Iskashitaa Refugee Network and a founding member of the recently formed Association of Gleaning Originations (AGO) in North America, I want to challenge us to reconnect to our precious food sources, reevaluate what we can do to reduce food waste locally, statewide and in the U.S. to meet the lofty goals set by government agencies. 

What can you do?

You can start ignoring the "best used by dates" as they are not related to food safety, regulated by any entity, nor uniform from state to state. They are printed by manufacturers who want to sell more products. If these misleading labels are heeded, food is discarded unnecessarily that results in massive food waste both in our homes and stores. 

Joining friends or family for dinner? Take carry out containers for leftovers, even at restaurants this action slows food waste and every bit helps. Consider labelling and freezing turkey, mashed potatoes and more for a later gratitude meal made up of only leftovers. 

We must increase public awareness and design a food waste roadmap toward these 2030 goals. 

We must increase consumer and industry awareness of the scale of the food waste problem along with the environmental, social and economic benefits of reducing wasted food. There should be plans for every city, county and state. 

This holiday season you also can donate to or volunteer with one of the many local food rescue organizations through the Food Rescue Locator. Be motivated to spread awareness of our nations’ colossal food waste knowing each of you can make a difference when it comes to wasting food.  

Barbara Eiswerth is founder and executive director of Iskashitaa Refugee Network, has a PhD in agriculture from the University of Arizona and is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.