About 795 million people around the world suffer from chronic undernourishment, according to estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. That’s about 1 in every 9 people. While most of them live in developing countries, the hunger crisis is happening in rich countries as well. In the United States, more than 48 million Americans—including more than 15 million children—live in food-insecure households.
It doesn’t have to be like this. There’s plenty of food to go around. But the way our food system is structured and they way we’ve been conditioned by our throwaway culture, we dispose of a shocking amount of good and safe food every year. According to FAO, “nearly one-third of food produced for human consumption—approximately 1.3 billion tons per year—is either lost or wasted globally.”
Part of our conditioning, especially in the U.S., is to dislike misshapen tomatoes and bent cucumbers: they are perfectly healthy, yet due to some strange measure of perfection, odd-looking fruits and vegetables are tossed out at the farm and never make it to market.
In his book Freegan, Alex V. Barnard, a food justice activist, uncovers the scale of the illogic at the heart of the American food system:
Forty percent of the United States’ food supply is never consumed. From virtually any angle, the scale of food waste is astonishing. According to conservative estimates, 160 billion pounds per year are jettisoned during harvest, processing, distribution, and consumption. In 2008 Americans wasted $4.1 billion worth of tomatoes alone—and with them, the approximately 8.9 million hours of labor and 15 billion gallons of water that went into producing them.
While the market value of America’s food waste ($197.7 billion) is shocking, its potential “value” to meet human needs is even more striking. By one calculation, Americans dispose of enough calories of edible food each year to bring the diets of every undernourished person in the world up to an appropriate level. Yet estimates suggest that less than 10 percent of grocery stores’ edible excess gets donated. Still smaller quantities are donated at other points in the food chain. Almost all the rest makes its way to landfills, where it spews methane, a potent greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change.
The nearly $200 billion lost to food waste doesn’t even include the numerous taxpayer-funded federal and state programs that are put in place to conquer America’s hunger crisis—which wouldn’t be necessary if we had a more efficient and sustainable food system to begin with. President Obama’s 2017 budget, for example, includes a $12 billion investment to reduce child hunger during the summer months, when school is out of session.
Last year alone, Californians received $7.5 billion in food assistance. This while the state throws away more than 6 million tons of edible food every year, and while the vast majority of the state's 90,000 restaurants and eateries don't participate in food donation programs that could help alleviate the hunger crisis. The bottom line is that we all need to stop wasting so much food. The UN estimates that there would be enough food to feed all the people around the globe suffering from malnutrition if the amount of worldwide food waste were reduced by just 25 percent.
Check out the infographic below for some more eye-opening statistics about food waste—and seven dishes to prepare using leftovers.
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