Up to half the almost 600 billion pounds of food the United States produces each year goes to waste at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Left in the field
Food waste starts in the field. Food that doesn’t look or feel perfect on quick inspection or is not quite ripe or ready for picking is left in the field, never to be harvested. The average harvest rate for lettuce is estimated at 85% to 90%. “One cucumber grower said that at least half of the cucumbers on his farms aren’t harvested, mostly because they are too curved (making them hard to pack) or have white spots or small cracks.” About 9% of machine-harvested commodity crops like corn and wheat in the U.S. aren’t harvested.

Lost in transit
1,500 miles is the average length of travel (plane, truck or ship) for produce items, providing many opportunities for decay or damage. In-transit losses can reach 10% to 15% for some crops such as leafy greens or fragile grapes.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2006 food markets tossed “8% of their fresh fruit, 8% of their fresh vegetables, 5% of their fresh meat and poultry and 9% of their fresh seafood,” or an estimated 30 million pounds of damaged or expired food every day.

It is estimated that American households waste 15% to 25% of the food they buy but they are not alone: a recent study found an even higher 30% for British consumers.

“Commercial kitchens (hospitals, schools, restaurants) throw away between 4% and 10% of the food that they purchase, for reasons like overproduction, spoilage, expiration, trimmings, burned items, catering leftovers and contamination. Up to 10% of the items at fast-food restaurants are discarded because they’ve sat too long after being prepared. The losses continue on the plate. A researcher from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab found that diners leave an average of 17% of their meals uneaten, because of factors like large serving sizes or unwanted side dishes. And roughly 55% of major leftovers aren’t taken home.”

Quoted from The Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2010, “Throwing Away Our Food” and Jonathan Bloom’s “American Wasteland” (Da Capo Press, 2010).