by the numbers

It’s easy to become overwhelmed when attempting systems change. Understanding data can help strategically shape our efforts, hopefully leading to effective interventions. Here, I dive into the data about food waste, a problem that affects us all, whether we know it or not.


% of Food Products Wasted by the Average American

Source: National Resources Defense Council 2013

Food waste is a term – and topic – increasingly in the public eye. Indeed, when you’ve made John Oliver’s show, you know you’ve hit the big time. But all joking aside, we – both globally and nationally, throw away a tremendous amount of food. For many reasons, often perfectly edible food goes to waste; lying fallow in fields or getting tossed into trash bins, compost heaps, or landfill, where it has become the second highest emitter of methane, a highly toxic greenhouse gas. Not to mention all the water, oil, and other substances used to produce food that never gets eaten.



This amount of waste doesn’t just negatively impact the environment, but our economy and food security as well. It’s estimated that the average American tosses about 20 pounds of food each month, at a cost of $28-$43, or $1350 - $2275 for a family of four annually. That’s $165 billion (with a B) in annual losses. 

Food security is a measure of how frequently we do (or do not) have access to enough food for an active, healthy, life. Many Americans, especially children, live in food insecure households – 49.1 million as of 2013.  Most often, this is due to a combination of limited access and resources to purchase adequate food.







Relative Contribution to Total Food Waste by Supply Chain Phase

Calculated for USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Source: Food and Agriculture Organization 2011

Food Security Status of Adults and Children, in Households with Children

Source: Calculated by ERS using data from the December 2013 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement.

Entities in each link of the food supply chain know that they will need to cover the cost of lost and wasted food, which increases prices at every stage. By taking steps to reduce and limit food waste, particularly in the production and consumption stages, we can help ensure more, higher-quality food is available to everyone, especially those most in need. It’s estimated that 25 million more Americans would receive sufficient food if we wasted 15% less.

Happily, innovative programs are proliferating. Daily Table, a non-profit grocery store that collects high-quality food from manufacturers, growers, and other outlets that would otherwise discard it and offers it at extremely low prices, opened earlier this year in Dorchester, MA. California’s Association of Food Banks Farm to Family program, which provides assistance and logistical support for farms to donate commercially unsellable produce, distributed over 140 million pounds of produce across California last year. This program was given a tremendous boost with the passage of AB 152 in 2011, which provides a permanent tax credit for growers donating food. This is exactly the type of intersectoral, systems approach we need – and why this is a on which I’ll continue to focus in the coming years.