Quantifying American urban food-waste

American households throw away a lot of food: sometimes it's spoiled, sometimes it's past its "sell-by" date (but still good), sometimes it's blemished, and sometimes it's just an unappetizing leftover.

Last February, Tetratech researchers reported in the preliminary results of a study of American urban food-waste, whose sampling methodology included sorting through bags of slimy household and restaurant waste and catalog their contents.

Now the researchers have published a pair of final reports that take a deep dive into our food waste. Among the findings: households with composters are more likely to toss out marginal food rather than consuming it (composting doesn't feel as guiltily wasteful) and households are responsible for as much or more food waste than restaurants (which makes sense, because restaurants have people who are paid to figure out how to order exactly the right amounts of food).

Solving these problems will require both behavior modification and changes in city services and planning.

All this surplus food could be put to better use. "An outrageous amount of food is wasted in our cities, yet at the same time many residents are in need," said Dana Gunders, a senior scientist at NRDC, in a statement. The other new report documents the ways that cities can push back against hunger and food insecurity, which continue to nag cities, suburbs, and rural regions despite the excess of edible food. Some 13.4 percent of Tennessee residents are food insecure, according to a 2016 report from the USDA. Across New York State, that figure is 12.5 percent; in Colorado, 10.3 percent of citizens struggle to reliably access nutritious food.

The NRDC researchers compared current food rescue rates in the three cities to the maximum volume that could be intercepted, and found that it's feasible to recoup tens of thousands of tons of packaged, raw, or prepared items across the board, from grocery stores, restaurants, caterers, coffee shops, schools, and more. In Denver, where 2,539 tons of food is currently rescued along the food chain, the researchers pinpoint an additional untapped potential of 4,232 tons—enough for about 7.1 million meals. These could go a long way in a city where nearly about 13 percent of residents lack reliable access to nutritious food.

But that goal is a lofty one: It assumes that all of the local businesses and institutions will buy in. The researchers also spooled up a less ambitious projection, in which participation rates are more modestly scaled up from their current numbers. That model would still translate to 901 tons of food, or 1.5 million meals—but it could require an infusion of $2 million to cover the cost of vehicles and storage space to accommodate the haul.


[Jessica Leigh Hester/Wired]