Nutrition Sustainability Series Part 1: Food Sustainability
Updated: Jan 13
As a global community, we generate an exorbitant amount of food waste. Worldwide, about one-third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted or lost somewhere in the farm-to-table chain. This amounts to roughly 1.3 billion tons of food each year (5). To put things into more perspective, food waste produces a larger carbon footprint than the airline industry (6).
How much of that are we contributing to as a nation? Here is a breakdown of what is happening in our own backyard:
It is estimated that 10.1 million tons of food are lost at the farm level, each year in the United States (4). The USDA recognizes that food waste, at the farm level, contributes to a large portion of total food waste (3). Most food waste currently ends up in landfills and ultimately leads to an increased release of methane gas (1,4). This greenhouse gas contributes to global warming, which leads to a whole slew of additional, negative environmental impacts (4).
Not all of this food is unsafe for consumption. One of the contributors to food waste is grocer preference for more aesthetically appealing, uniform produce (1). This ultimately drives increased food waste throughout multiple steps in the food supply chain but begins at the farm level: produce is left in the field because it does not meet the visual and size standards of food retailers (1). On top of that, the high visual and size standards set forth by food retailers have been shown to influence consumer perception of food quality (2). This has created a vicious cycle where consumers continue to demand visually appealing and uniform products because that is what retailers initially presented to them as ideal produce.
Now, there are systemic issues at play here that we as individuals cannot tackle alone. U.S. News and World Report predicts that "no waste" and "upcycled foods" will be a trend in 2022 as companies are starting to make commitments to reducing food waste (6). Some companies have even started solely around the idea of reducing food waste with their products!
So what can we do as consumers to help reduce waste and create a more sustainable food system?
While we do not have total control over the practices of food manufacturers, we can vote with our dollars. We can choose to purchase from companies that are committed to reducing food waste and we can buy products made with upcycled ingredients!
There are also many steps we can take in our own homes to help reduce food waste!
Start by working to reduce the amount of food you throw out in your own household: This can help reduce food waste and save you time and money! Try to cook and freeze food before it goes bad, create a "clean the fridge out" night on the dinner rotation, and pre-portion and freeze leftovers for easy meals on a busy night in the future. Also, check and see if you are throwing away perfectly edible portions of food. For example, broccoli stems are edible and delicious, raw or cooked!
Purchase food from farmers' markets:
Buying local means you are supporting workers in your community and less carbon was used to transport your food to you! On top of that, these farmers do not have to abide by the size and appearance requirements some grocers have. It is also a great way to build in variety by eating what is in season in your area!
Look into operations in your area that "rescue" and sell food that would otherwise be waste:
A few companies have dedicated their operations to purchasing food that would otherwise be thrown out or left in the field, not because it is unsafe to eat but because it is "ugly." The food does may not look like perfect grocery store items but it is equally nutritious and delicious! Some of these companies include Imperfect Produce, Perfectly Imperfect Produce, and Misfits Market. They service different areas so take a look at what is available in your neighborhood.
I have a feeling we will continue to learn more about this topic in the coming years and am excited to see what we come up with as a global community! This is by no means an all-inclusive list - there are many more ways in which you can contribute to building a more sustainable food system. Get creative, get the family involved, and have fun with it!
1.) PBS NewsHour. Food, Glorious Food. Why does almost half of America’s food go to
2.) Riccarda Moser, Roberta Raffaeli, Dawn Thilmany-McFadden. Consumer Preferences
for Fruit and Vegetables with Credence-Based Attributes: A Review. 2011.
3.) Claudia Hitaj. Food Loss at the Farm Level. USDA. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/
2019/04/16/food-loss-farm-level. Published 2021. Accessed January 9, 2022, 2022.
4.) ReFED. A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent. ReFED; 2016.
5.) Celia Hernandez. Key Message on the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss
and Waste. USDA. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2021/09/29/key-messages-
international-day-awareness-food-loss-and-waste. Published 2021. Updated September 29, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2022.
6.) Janet Helm M, RDN. Top Food Trends for 2022. 2021;2022. https://health.usnews.
Published December 21, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2022.