Half of all US food produce is thrown away, new research suggests

The demand for ‘perfect’ fruit and veg means much is discarded, damaging the climate and leaving people hungry
Discarded food is the biggest single component of US landfill and incinerators, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (Photograph: Dan Tuffs/for the Guardian)

Discarded food is the biggest single component of US landfill and incinerators, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (Photograph: Dan Tuffs/for the Guardian)

The following comes from a July 13 Guardian article by Suzanne Goldenberg:

Americans throw away almost as much food as they eat because of a “cult of perfection”, deepening hunger and poverty, and inflicting a heavy toll on the environment.

Vast quantities of fresh produce grown in the US are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or hauled directly from the field to landfill, because of unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards, according to official data and interviews with dozens of farmers, packers, truckers, researchers, campaigners and government officials.

Wayde Kirschenman. (Photograph: Dan Tuffs/for the Guardian)

Wayde Kirschenman. (Photograph: Dan Tuffs/for the Guardian)

But that is just a “downstream” measure. In more than two dozen interviews, farmers, packers, wholesalers, truckers, food academics and campaigners described the waste that occurs “upstream”: scarred vegetables regularly abandoned in the field to save the expense and labour involved in harvest. Or left to rot in a warehouse because of minor blemishes that do not necessarily affect freshness or quality.

When added to the retail waste, it takes the amount of food lost close to half of all produce grown, experts say.

“I would say at times there is 25% of the crop that is just thrown away or fed to cattle,” said Wayde Kirschenman, whose family has been growing potatoes and other vegetables near Bakersfield, California, since the 1930s. “Sometimes it can be worse.”

“There are a lot of people who are hungry and malnourished, including in the US. My guess is probably 5-10% of the population are still hungry – they still do not have enough to eat,” said Shenggen Fan, the director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. “That is why food waste, food loss matters a great deal. People are still hungry.”

Squash left to rot in a field in Florida. Globally, about one-third of food is wasted: a total of 1.6bn tonnes a year. (Photograph: Alamy)

Squash left to rot in a field in Florida. Globally, about one-third of food is wasted: a total of 1.6bn tonnes a year. (Photograph: Alamy)

That is not counting the waste of water, land and other resources, or the toll on the climate of producing food that ends up in landfill.

Within the US, discarded food is the biggest single component of landfill and incinerators, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Food dumps are a rising source of methane, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But experts readily acknowledge that they are only beginning to come to grips with the scale of the problem.

Retail giants argue that they are operating in consumers’ best interests, according to food experts. “A lot of the waste is happening further up the food chain and often on behalf of consumers, based on the perception of what those consumers want,” said Roni Neff, the director of the food system environmental sustainability and public health programme at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in Baltimore.

“Fruit and vegetables are often culled out because they think nobody would buy them,” she said.

But Roger Gordon, who founded the Food Cowboy startup to rescue and re-route rejected produce, believes that the waste is built into the economics of food production. Fresh produce accounts for 15% of supermarket profits, he argued.

“If you and I reduced fresh produce waste by 50% like [the US agriculture secretary] Vilsack wants us to do, then supermarkets would go from [a] 1.5% profit margin to 0.7%,” he said. “And if we were to lose 50% of consumer waste, then we would lose about $250bn in economic activity that would go away.”


  1. Tom Byrne says

    There is also a near-paranoia about food poisoning from food that is “not fresh” dinned into all of us beginning in grade school too often misdirected at perfectly safe food that merely looks imperfect. My mother, raised in the “old days” just cut out the brown spots and served stuff to us. (By the way: produce fed to cattle or other critters is hardly “waste”.)

  2. Michael McDermott says

    I was operations supervisor at the largest Womyn Owned / Run caterer (PLD) in the bay area during the the dot-com bubble – Serving the Richest of Snob Hill society

    The ‘Gucci Scarecrows’ of the Demi-Krat power (Pelosi-Krats…) structure threw lavish parties ,but the food was mostly for show – of ostentatious wealth

    We once cooked a ‘Baron of Beef’ (1/4 cow) for a Renaissance themed party in a marbled mansion – set on Display as part of a Cornucopia image out of an old painting

    It could have fed a shelter for a week – but I saw it in a plastic garbage bag outside the kitchen the next morning – having served its decorative purpose; like so much from Snob Hill it was thrown away – lest it ruin their diet

    • Michael Mc Dermott, I saw bags and bags of perfectly good binders that had been donated by a company to a public school thrown out. Before they had usually given any supplies they did not want to parents by putting them on the stage, but because they were afraid they would not get a tax increase for purchases of school supplies if the parents knew they had an these, they threw them out into the garbage. Waste does happen.

    • All of my clients know that if they have any significant amount of food leftover from the event know they can call us and we’ll pick it up and take it to a local shelter or soup kitchen. My own parish and a synagogue I serve actually over order a bit, both as not to run out and to maybe have something for a nearby shelter for homeless youth.

  3. Farmers used to allow people to go out and glean the fields after harvest as was recommended in the Old Testament. My grandmother and I went and gleaned for onions some years.

    Also, it seems as if some of this could be made into a compost heap and sold as fertilizer. Just a thought.

  4. FromThePew says

    Rubbish! An overblown LIB leaning study throwing stones on us Americans. Claims, dozens of interviews, expert advice, BUT NO hard data, or comparisons with other developed countries, which must be very much the same! I have always heard– growing, harvesting, processing etc is the most efficient here. Bread basket of the world, etc. Stuff left in the field is good for the soil and nature, wild critters, etc. So called, ‘waste’ feeds domestic animals. Who thinks up these silly articles? Yet another PC government program started to control yet another aspect of our lives? Not much waste once the stuff gets to my house. COMMON SENSE Says we are NOT any worse then other developed countries.

    • I am inclined to mostly agree with you, From the Pew, as people, including my family, still go and pick fruit from the trees after the harvest for ourselves. There is a charge for the produce but far less than in the stores. Also, frivolous lawsuits have spoiled a lot of things.

    • Also, I had one grocery clerk tell me years ago that people coming in from other countries used to waste the plastic bags for vegetables and take far more than were needed, so it is not all American born people doing such things. I always put vegetables or fruit of the same price into one bag. It is good, as far as I am concerned, that the people who use the larger grocery bags are now the ones charged for them,

  5. The basic point of the article is that our stores will only buy produce that looks good. What we don’t have is an efficient way to get “unattractive” food distributed efficiently to those who could and would use it. Much goes to the Food Banks in many cities and to the kitchens that feed the poor and homeless. The food is perfectly good, just not pretty. Look around the average supermarket and you see nothing but pretty produce. It is all hybrid stuff, designed to be machine picked, to be certain shapes, etc. And yet, we have supermarket deserts in our communities where people can’s get any fresh food, even the “ugly” stuff. The system is broken.

    • That might be true, Bob One, in some other states, but here in California we have farmer’s markets in just about every city, or fields where we can go pick our own fruits and vegetables for a nominal charge, or perhaps even for free. Many farmers also sell their produce at the flea markets where poorer families can buy it at a much cheaper price.

      • Anne T, I live in CA and go to farmer’s markets all the time. I can do it because I can afford it. Low income people can’t afford the high prices of fresh food that we might think is reasonable. When you make $10/hr you can’t afford $4.50 for a head of lettuce or $3.50 for pint of blackberries, etc. For 30%=?- of our population food is too expensive. If it is priced any lower the producer, wholesaler and retailer can’t make any profit, but it is still too high.

        • Bob One, people need to help other people — one by one. Take some poor neighbor with you when you go to the flea market, etc., or ask them if they need something? Perhaps they can afford it if they do not have to buy gas. Not everything can be solved by the government.

          We have a small backyard with some fruit trees and vegetables. If one grows zucchini, one can feed the whole neighborhood. (Lots of laughs.)

    • Also, our farmers are competing with produce coming in from other countries more than they used to do. I accidentally bought some garlic from China one time at a flea market, and it was horrid compared to garlic grown here in California, especially in Gilroy.

    • FromThePew says

      Bob1, Really, the USA can’t be THAT MUCH different then the ‘NORM’ of all developed nations. ALL the systems CAN’T be BROKEN can they? This ‘common sense’ article on PC tactics, may help explain the game of PC going on here. ‘MENTALLY ILL AMERICA: The 10 delusional demands of political correctness you are REQUIRED to accept, despite the contradictory evidence witnessed with your own eyes.’ By Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, July 11, 2016 @ http://www.naturalnews.com/054625_political_correctness_mass_mental_illness_insane_America.html#ixzz4EM6KJoCY

      • FromThePew says

        Continued…………Bob1, You mention “market deserts”, “system broken” without any data/proof. Both sound like a PC type ad. Watch out for PC illusions easily accepted without study/basis. Per this well done article: there is a war for (control) of thinking going on around us. And it is called Political Correctness. May we all rise above the trap, God willing.

        • Tom Byrne says

          FTP: As example:
          An activist once complained (in the Chronicle) that a corner grocery in a poor neighborhood had all the produce in the back, but the tobacco up by the cash register. “What does that say about us?’ she wailed. Apparently it didn’t occur to her that more shoplifters would target cigarettes than cabbage!

          • Your Fellow Catholic says

            Why sell cigarettes at all, which kill more people than abortion?

          • FromThePew says

            And another LIB PC STATEMENT made without specifics. “Yes, there are large swaths of cities that have no supermarkets, so people don’t have access to a lot of fresh fruit at reasonable prices.”
            Where exactly?

          • FromThePew says

            TB, Right….Aren’t ciggies always near the front of stores? The poor nicotine addicted souls want to run in & out for their ‘fix’. Nobody ever runs in & out for a vegetable! Heck, my people don’t even like vegetables much. They like meat & potatoes. Yet the PC crowd wants to make a point of ‘vegetables’ to force people to eat what they don’t want. Like the failed “school lunch programs” but for grown ups.

          • FromThePew says

            TB, Continued….More to your point, the ciggies are up front to prevent theft! I think people who look at everything with a PC lens & buy into that INSANITY, lose the ability to see common sense reasons. They look for PC issues in everything. They are being driven crazy by it. My proof, this article: ‘MENTALLY ILL AMERICA: The 10 delusional demands of P C you are REQUIRED to accept, despite contradictory evidence witnessed with your OWN eyes.’ By Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, @ http://www.naturalnews.com/054625_political_correctness_mass_mental_illness_insane_America.html#ixzz4EM6KJoCY

          • Your Fellow Catholic says

            San Francisco South of Market is one area without supermarkets. There is now a small Safeway near ATT Park, and a Trader Joe’s, if you want to call that a supermarket, but hardly affordable.

          • Stores in all areas put the essentials — eggs, bread, milk, etc. toward the back as people then have to walk through the store and see other merchandise, which tends to increase sales. Stores change merchandise around during the year for the same purpose.

            The same merchandise can be cheaper in poorer areas than in more affluent areas, too. Of course this does not help the poor who are living in the higher priced areas.

  6. Let’s all go pick fruit and produce on the farms. Really? How will we get there when we don’t have a car, couldn’t afford the gas anyway. Food production is not a cute little farm way of life. Most of our food in grown by huge companies on huge farms. Drive down our highways(I5 for example) and you will see farms of 200-300 acres of tomatoes, or lettuce, or strawberries, etc. Yes, there are large swaths of cities that have no supermarkets, so people don’t have access to a lot of fresh fruit at reasonable prices. When a poor family needs food for 4 people, a $1.00 box of mac and cheese is a lot cheaper than a $4.00 head of lettuce.

  7. Michael McDermott says

    There are organizations like ‘Second Harvest’ and the like that do garner fruit and veggies (lots of zucchini) from private sources.

    SSADly – the risk and liability from letting strangers on your property to pick ripe foods has discouraged much of this.

    Framers markets have lots of rules – particularly about ‘Organic’ foods and what qualifies for resale or give away.

    I have hauled hundreds of pounds of grapefruit to the food bank over the years, which is easier than picking it up after it rots and draws flies – but the Liability issues feed only hungry attorneys – whose need to feed mini-mansion mortgages is a far worse rot on society as a whole.

  8. Linda Maria says

    Fr. Fessio has a great project, with his Nano Farms, at the local St. Patrick’s seminary! He has helped people with low incomes to improve their lives! They raise beautiful, organic fruits and vegetables, and will bring you a box each week, for $30, if you sign up for their program, for the growing season each year. Also, Nano Farms can install one or more small, raised garden planters, in your yard, and plant seeds, and come around regularly, to water your garden and cultivate it– and instruct you in learning to do this, for yourself and your family! It is nice to have your own, small garden, to feed yourself and your family! Food is costly!– best for it to be shared, in large, family-style meals!

    • Linda Maria, this sounds like a great program for those who can afford it. If I make $10/ hour or $1,700 per month, I might need $7-800 for rent, $80 for gas to get to work, $50 for school clothes for the kids, and $50 or more for first week of school expenses, regular food – milk, cereal, etc. and pretty soon I don’t have $30 for a box of produce. That might be my total food budget for the week. The point which many of us don’t realize, myself included, is how many of our fellow working neighbors don’t have basic income sufficient to meet basic needs. In our small city there are 3,000 people a night living on the streets.

      • Linda Maria says

        Bob One– that is exactly why Fr. Fessio started this program, Nano Farms–on the St. Patrick’s Seminary grounds– to help suffering people here locally, who are in the situation you described, in your above post! And even more– Nano Farms will come and help you make your OWN garden, for yourself and your family, right at your own home! And you can also pick and choose, what you want to grow!

        • Linda Maria says

          Bob One– yes, I agree, that $30 for weekly produce boxes, is too expensive– UNLESS you use the box, to make big family meals! Americans all used to hare big family meals together, three times a day– not the modern, individual “grab a meal as you can” way of life! The mother of a family, could really stretch her family’s budget, and provide for all of her family’s needs, in this way! My mother always had big, complete family meals– and no eating in-between, and no sweets, sodas, or “junk foods,” ever! Everyone sat down to three square meals– and good, packed lunches, too, for us kids, and our dad, on week-days!

          • Linda Maria says

            Bob One– your posts remind me– of America’s great losses, since the 1960’s! America used to be family-centered, around the traditional marriage, home and family. People used to live and work, most of their lives, (with maybe just one job!) in one city, and knew most of their neighbors and co-workers. They also went to one church, lifelong, and knew everyone! You also knew all your local farmers and merchants. And they all shared the American way of life, and it was good! America, a Christian nation, had the Bible and Christian morals, as its base! And people helped each other!

          • Linda Maria says

            Our neighborhood was middle-class, and every family had lots of kids! Kids shared bedrooms, and their moms often gave them “hand-me-downs” to wear. Many moms cooked and sewed, and some had gardens, too. And lots of pets! Things just didn’t cost so much, and needs were fewer, and goods were fewer, too! Medical bills were much lower, and no one had health insurance, until much later. Everyone lived well, though modestly– with a couple of kids– or twelve! And no one went homeless or hungry!

  9. Hocus Pocus. Mere pretext for unlimited government.

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