The graphic above, prepared by the Wall Street Journal, does a great job depicting the amount of food wasted across various food groups in the U.S.
It is a staggering amount – 429 pounds of food are wasted per person each year. Or stated another way, The U.S. wastes 31 to 40% of its post-harvest food supply.
This is a combination of food waste at the retail level (the difference between how much comes into a store versus how much is sold) plus at the consumer level (based on surveys of what consumers say they bought versus what they ate).
In dollar amounts, these food losses amount to $166 billion, with retail accounting for 32% of the total and consumers the remaining 68%.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, suggests several factors lead to consumer waste, including overpurchasing and confusion over expiration dates.
Here is some additional data from a study at Johns Hopkins University:
The lost nutritional value of post-harvest waste in the U.S. represents an estimated 1,249 calories per capita per day, with the greatest amount by weight coming from fruits and vegetables . Waste impacts public, food industry and household budgets; food lost from harvest to consumer in 2010 cost $161.6 billion; losses at the consumer level averaged $371 per capita, or 9.2% of average food spending . Addressing wasted food puts that food and/or money back into circulation, potentially contributing to improved nutrition and, among those with lower incomes, improved food security. More broadly, reducing waste could help offset the 60% increase in food the United Nations projects we will need from 2009 to 2050. Because wasting food means wasting all the food’s “embodied” social and environmental impacts, this loss contributes extensive water, air and soil contamination  and harm to workers. Wasted food in North America/Oceania also accounts for an estimated 35% of freshwater consumption, 31% of cropland, and 30% of fertilizer usage; as well as 2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions ; and 21% of post-recycling municipal solid waste. The avoidable use of limited resources and additional environmental impacts from wasted food contribute to the challenge of providing a sustainable and affordable food supply for the future.
This study also discovered that while many people may be aware of how much food is wasted in the U.S. (45% of the people surveyed were aware of the 40% waste estimate that has been reported), when asked to compare the amount of food they discard to that of others, 73% of respondents reported that they discard less than the average American household, and only 3% reported that they discard more (sounds like a Lake Wobegon distribution where all the children above average).
So in other words, people are not conscious of the fact that they are wasting food.
But perhaps this should not come as much of a surprise; many people aren’t conscious of what they are eating.
I would guess that most people do not know how many calories they should be eating per day versus how many calories they are eating; how much fat, protein, and carbohydrates they should be getting versus what they are getting; how much sodium they should be consuming versus how much they are consuming; how much fiber they need versus how much they are getting; the list could go on and on.
To me, what we eat each day is one of the most important decisions we make every day, yet most people give little thought to it.
It doesn’t take a lot of reading and research to know some of the basics about food and nutrition (two book recommendations are The Food Revolution and The Engine 2 Diet, and Forks Over Knives and Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead are two great documentaries). But knowledge is one thing; acting on such knowledge is the key and much harder.
So I think a key to reducing the amount of food that is wasted each year is first making people more knowledgable about food and nutrition in general.
Once someone is armed with such knowledge and they begin to eat more consciously, then I believe they will begin to treat their usage of food more carefully, leading to a reduction in the amount of food that is wasted.
Like with most things, a little knowledge can go a long way.