This article was written by Erica Barnett in January 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
Every year, more than a quarter of the food in the United States' food system goes to waste. (In the UK, it's a third). That's 96 billion pounds of food lost in fields, commercial kitchens, manufacturing plants, stores, schools, and restaurants--a far cry from the "zero-waste" strategies many cities, including my own, are adopting). The nation spends $1 billion a year disposing of excess food, wasting both food and money. Some proposals to deal with all this excess food revolve around "food recovery"--using food according to a "food waste reduction hierarchy" in which food is provided in order of preference, starting with human consumption. Food that isn't eaten by humans is then fed to animals; food that can't be fed to animals is recycled for industrial purposes; and finally, anything left over is turned into compost. Five percent of what we throw away, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, could feed four million Americans every day.
The concept of reducing food waste is also behind freeganism, whose practitioners hunt and forage behind restaurants and groceries for usable food that's getting thrown away because, in many cases, it simply fails to meet arbitrary aesthetic or other standards set by supermarkets. A lot of it is inedible, but a lot of it isn't--it just can't be sold, or it's perishable and can't be donated, or it's just not moving off the shelves.
One small-scale anti-food-waste project is being run by Seattle blogger Crunchy Chicken, whose last online group project was the Eat Local for Thanksgiving Challenge. This time, she's challenging readers to reduce their food waste and lose weight at the same time, with a project she's dubbedProject NoWaste (No Overeating While Attempting to Save The Environment). So far, she's invited readers to submit comments about their weight-loss goals and measurements, and to keep strict track (by weight) of how much edible food they throw out in a week, whether it goes in the garbage, a compost pile, or food-waste pickup bin. In the future, she plans to provide rough calculations how much CO2 each participant's extra weight and food waste translates into. Participants put as much information as they're comfortable with online, in an effort to create a sense of accountability and a place for mutual validation. In essence, it's an online support group that focuses on both personal and environmental health--and raises awareness of how much individuals can do to reduce the size of the massive pile of food that goes to waste in this country every year.
Creative Strategies for Reducing Food Waste is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
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I think food recycling is great. In my community there is a company called Skagit Gleaners. They take all the unsellable food from markets, put it in a warehouse and let people shop. Its a great program because everyone who takes also must give back. There is a small annual fee that you make back on your first trip to the warehouse and you donate hours per quarter. Its wonderful. The berry gleans are the best!
Another excellent idea: recently created in Vienna, Austria, the Wiener Tafel ("Vienna Table"; http://www.wienertafel.at; unfortunatey site only in German), collects and distributes to social institutions food and hygiene articles short before their expiration date. They depend on donations and their work force is basically volunteers. Costs are also covered by initiatives like art auctions etc.