5 Easy Ways Ordinary People Can Fight Food Waste

Last Update: May 17, 2023

In case you haven’t heard, all along the food chain, we Americans throw out a lot of perfectly edible food.

Waste occurs at the production level, with excess produce rotting in the fields, being composted or put into landfills, or fed to animals. It happens at the retail level when supermarkets are unable to sell an item before the born-on date, or a vegetable gets a little too ripe or is bruised. And we all know it happens once we get the food home, where perishables sit uneaten in the back of the fridge, or our eyes were bigger than our stomachs at dinnertime.

Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that 133 billion pounds of post-harvest food—or 31 percent of our food supply, worth roughly $161 billion—is never consumed. It could be higher than that, however. In 2012, the National Resource Defense Council put amount of wasted food at closer to 40 percent.

The consequences of food waste are numerous. It contributes to climate change, for instance, as food scraps that are put into landfills emits a high concentration of methane—a potent greenhouse gas. But given the large number of food-insecure and nutrition-deprived people throughout the world, throwing out edible food is a social justice issue as well.

Fortunately, the global ramifications of wasted food have brought the issue to the forefront in many places, leading states and local governments to require public institutions to find ways to divert food waste from landfills, and private entrepreneurs to invent ways to turn wasted food into green energy. “Zero waste” has become a buzzword at many large-scale events and organizations.

Collectively, we’d waste less food if individual consumers did a few things to intentionally reduce the amount of food they’re sending to landfills. Here are a five places to start:

1. Buy small and “ugly.”

Many producers trash produce that’s doesn’t meet a narrow definition of perfection. Maybe it’s too small, too big, or misshapen. Whatever the “imperfection,” it’s completely edible.

European supermarkets have been selling “ugly produce” for years, but American supermarkets have been slow to accept the misshapen or bruised farm outcasts. Until now. Imperfect Produce is rescuing the perfectly edible but slightly odd-ball fruits and veggies from California farms in an effort to curb food waste and feed more people, and last week the startup signed a deal with high-end CA grocer Raley’s to sell its “ugly food.” Ask your local grocer to do the same.

2. Understand what sell-by dates are—and aren’t.

Sell-by dates are not expiration dates, and in most cases they have zero connection to food freshness or safety. Most shoppers and retailers don’t know that, though, and plenty of edible food gets tossed because of it.

Luckily for us, Harvard Law School and the Natural Resources Defense Council teamed up a while back to explain the confusion around food date labels and recommend a standardized labeling system across all food types.

3. Store and preserve correctly.

Much produce goes uneaten once it’s in our refrigerators because we’re simply not storing it correctly. We can extend the life of our fruit and veggies by immediately placing greens in sealable bags, placing some herbs upright in a small vase of water, or even popping greens right in the freezer. Learning how to can and ferment excess foods will also keep more of our food out of the trash and let us enjoy it for many more months.

4. Make and eat only what you need.

Most would agree we have a portion size problem in America, and it’s killing us. It’s also leading to more of the food on our plates being scraped into the garbage when we’ve had enough. Restaurants are certainly part of the problem, with their gargantuan portions, but so are we when we do not properly measure out the meals we prepare at home.

5. Composting food waste.

Inevitably, we’re going to have some food waste. Composting turns more of the food we don’t eat into rich, usable soil. Many states now have helpful online guides for how to compost yard and food waste, reducing our excuses for not doing it.

Photo credit: Glenn via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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