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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.

"Stick to the list in the store," Bloom said. "Don't be tempted by all those fabulous sights and smells."

But if the store is close enough, Bloom recommends more frequent stops at the store for fewer items at a time.Bloom, for example, goes to the store in Durham, N.C. three or four times a week.

Simple solutions

Taylor says the solution to much of a household's food waste is simple. Before people go shopping, they need to inventory what they have. They need to look into their refrigerator and freezer and the pantry.

The next step is to see what still-good items are closest to going bad and the things that are close to the expiration dates.

Then, people need to make a meal plan utilizing these items — and write down on the shopping list any additional items to make those meals.

"And always make a little bit extra for leftovers," she says.

Taylor also said leftovers are a problem. "People poorly manage their leftovers," she said. "They chuck them."

She says the key to leftovers is to not eat the same thing twice by making a meal plan that incorporates the leftovers in a subsequent meal. "And make it a meal that's tasty," she said. "You don't have to have the same chicken dinner day after day."

For example, you could make a chicken dinner one day. The next day could be chicken stir-fry or a chicken sandwich. Or put the chicken in a salad. Make chicken soup. Chicken stew. Chicken pot pie. "There are a billion recipes to make things with chicken," Taylor said. "Make something you want."

There is no reason to have the same meal twice if you do not want to.

Arranging food properly in the refrigerator also affects how fast it spoils, Taylor said. For example, milk shouldn't be kept on the door because it isn't as cold as in the center of the fridge. Set the right humidity level for produce drawers. Keep leftovers near the front of the fridge.

And cut back on all the food clutter of condiments. "Store food in your fridge," she said. "Pare it down."

Bloom has his own tips to cut back on waste — starting with how much is served at meals. He said to give smaller portions at first while making it comfortable for people to take seconds if they want. "We get this idea from restaurants that serving a massive amount of food is the norm when it shouldn't be," he said.

Bloom calls the freezer a "waste delayer" because it can extend the life of things approaching the expiration date.

He also said people should treat expiration dates as a guideline, not as definitive dates. "People think they won't be able to tell if something is bad," he said. "They are underestimating their inherited senses of smell and taste that have developed in the species over millennia."

Facing food facts

It is just a fact that good healthy foods are going to spoil if they are not used, Taylor said.

Fresh produce, fruits, vegetables, salads and meat. "It's all going to go bunk on you quicker than you can say yummy," she said.

But if Taylor and Blooms tips are followed, less will go bad. And that means an extra boost for the environment as well.

Bloom said people don't realize the amount of natural resources that go into producing food. "To throw out that food is squandering those precious resources," Bloom said.

The PLoS ONE study said food waste accounts for more than one quarter of the United State's total freshwater consumption and about 300 million barrels of oil every year. In total — looking at waste from production to consumption, 40 percent of food is wasted in America.

But in homes it doesn't have to be the case.

"Behavior change is difficult," Bloom admits. "But this is a situation where there is real self-interest in play. Why wouldn't you want to stop throwing away money and do the right thing for the environment by not throwing away food."

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com

TWITTER: @degroote

FACEBOOK: facebook.com/madegroote

Who is wasting food

The U.S. Department of Agriculture surveyed studies of consumer food waste. More food is wasted in summer months. Younger children waste more food than older children. Females waste more than males. Higher income individuals waste more than lower income individuals. Larger households (with more children, of course) waste more than smaller households. People waste more food when they eat at a restaurant than when they eat at home.

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