March 27, 2006 | General

Food Loss And The American Household

BioCycle March 2006, Vol. 47, No. 3, p. 28
Education is long-term solution to household food loss and also could aid in reducing obesity, slowing a massive dollar drain on the American economy.
Timothy W. Jones

AMERICAN HOUSEHOLDS allow 14 percent of the food they purchase to end up in their garbage. This costs a family of four nearly $600/year and deprives the American economy of $43 billion annually – money that could be spent on other consumer goods. On the average, a household contributes nearly 470 pounds of food to the waste stream annually – a major component of food and yard residuals that constitute 12 to 14 percent of all municipal solid waste disposed in landfills.
Americans are unaware of the myriad of ways they contribute to food loss. In fact, when most households are asked about how much food they lose, the response is none to very little. During interviews for the Food Loss Study we conducted for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it was not unusual to see members throwing leftover food in the trash while simultaneously stating that they do not waste food.
Nearly a fourth of fruits and vegetables, 13 percent of meat and 16 percent of grains Americans buy are trashed mainly because they “go bad.” Since many households do not know when a food is “bad,” they throw perfectly good leftovers out at the end of a meal. Americans also misjudge their future food use by basing it on their perceptions of how they should eat rather than how they actually eat – purchasing far more vegetables and fruit than they will consume. They believe they live a healthy lifestyle so when they go to the store, they purchase lots of nutritious fruits and vegetables expecting to consume them throughout the week. Every night, they come home from a long workday exhausted and pop a frozen dinner into the microwave. When Saturday comes around and they have the time and energy to cook, the vegetables in the refrigerator have turned to mush.
Fourteen percent of food loss consists of packaged edible food, foods that had not been taken out of their original packaging and were not out of date. Much of this food loss is due to misfires in American food purchasing behavior. People purchase new products and never get around to using them. People also purchase more product than they will use in order to “save money” on large quantity purchases. Every so often, Americans clean out their cupboards and throw out these perfectly good foods. This was one of the household food loss patterns that showed potential for efficiently recovering food for America’s food banks.
Ethnographic and archaeological data from the Food Loss Study show that most Americans have lost touch with food, what it is and how it functions in sustaining life. In the time it’s taken us to move from an agrarian to an industrial society, we’ve lost not only the knowledge of how food is produced but also the knowledge of food as a survival strategy.
Americans also have as little awareness of their food consumption as they do of their food loss. My work indicates that the core problems creating food loss may be the reason for the obesity plaguing Americans. What we found through our studies is that people have lost touch with food – what it is, where it comes from and how it functions in terms of nutrition and feeding the biological human machine. This “disconnect,” combined with the perception that food is cheap and plentiful (it’s not really cheap as consumers spend about 12 percent of their household budget on food), contribute to both food loss and obesity.
A solution to this lack of awareness is education. Adult education can change food behaviors, but adult education is expensive since it must be repeated every few years as the lesson fades. The real long-term solution is early childhood education where lessons taught will last a lifetime. Education about food should begin in the early impressionable years, first and second grade. The message needs to be basic, physical and visual so that it will be understood. Have them grow food, harvest, prepare and then eat it. Schoolyard gardens or planters are a perfect place to begin. Ideally, they should also tour a stockyard and butchering facility.
Food loss is a massive $100 billion drain on the American economy with households contributing nearly $43 billion. A national food loss center is needed to coordinate an effort to reduce food loss in America. The contribution a food center would make in reducing household food loss would also aid in reducing obesity. According to recent reports, obesity costs the American economy $100 billion annually. A food center with successful programs could aid the American economy by reducing expenditures on food that never gets consumed, and in promoting more healthful eating habits.
Dr. Timothy Jones is an adjunct professor at the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona in Tucson. He can be contacted by e-mail at

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