The food money pit: How food waste costs thousands and how to stop it

Published: Tuesday, June 5 2012 10:37 a.m. MDT

Studies say Americans waste up to 25 percent of their food every year.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

KELOWNA, Canada — It was a virtuous compost pile.

Kerry K. Taylor, a frugal living blogger at SquawkFox.com and author of "397 Ways to Save Money," was feeling pretty good about all those strawberries, apples and other produce rotting into dirt on her and her husband's organic farm in Canada.

"Then I did the math," Taylor said. "And I realized I just threw out $10 of food that week. So rather than stick all my money into soil, my husband and I made a list of all we were wasting."

Food waste costs each family in America big time — growing by 50 percent since 1974 according to a study in PLoS ONE by Kevin D. Hall, Juen Guo, Michael Dore, and Carson C. Chow.

And how much is being wasted?

A 2004 study by Timothy W. Jones, who was an anthropologist at the University of Arizona at the time, put the national food waste figure (including all the food wasted in production, food manufacturing, restaurants, etc.) between 40 and 50 percent. He found households waste 14 percent of their food purchases.

American households spent an average of $6,129 on food in 2010 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If Jones' figure of 14 percent waste is correct, that is about $858 per year or about $71 a month wasted on food thrown out. Some food waste experts say the food waste figure is as high as 25 percent or about $1,532 a year.

To Taylor, this was unacceptable.

And a little bit unbelievable until she tracked it.

Tracking the food

Taylor wrote down all the food she and her husband wasted. She even created a food waste diary on her website.

"It is like keeping a budget," Taylor said. "Unless you are keeping a budget it is hard to know where your money is going. Well, unless you know what food you are wasting, it is hard to know you should stop buying over that quantity. Track your food waste. Get the kids involved. I promise you that when you see what is being wasted it becomes a fun challenge to not waste as much food."

Jonathan Bloom also learned the hard way about food waste: By watching it. Bloom is a journalist and food waste expert and is the author of the book American Wasteland and runs the blog WastedFood.com. He worked as a volunteer for D.C. Central Kitchen in Washington D.C., a homeless shelter that rescues unused food. He helped as the charity took edible food left over from restaurants, supermarkets and catering companies and repurposed them to help feed the hungry. "Just seeing the sheer quantity and quality of the food being recovered set me on this path of trying to figure out why we have this much excess food in this country," he said.

Both Bloom and Taylor think food waste can be cut back and money saved.

"There is a tremendous amount of savings we can realize just by trimming the amount of food we throw out," Bloom said. "We can't completely eliminate food waste in our homes, but we can do better."

Just too much food

Bloom said the first driver of food waste is simply because people are buying too much food. "We stuff our refrigerators so full of perishables that we couldn't possibly use all of them before they go bad," Bloom said.

He said how Americans shop encourages this overbuying — going once a week and buying a lot of food without planning ahead.

Bloom said there are two approaches to buying. The market approach means many more visits to buy just enough food for the next day or so. You buy it when you need it. In America this means making more visits to the supermarket.

But if you are going to only go about once a week, planning is important, Bloom said.

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