Food Waste Problem | ReFED

Our food system is radically inefficient. In 2022, the U.S. let a huge 38% of the 235 million tons in our food supply go unsold or uneaten. We call this surplus food, and while a very small portion of it is donated to those in need and more is recycled, the vast majority becomes food waste, which goes straight to landfill, incineration, or down the drain, or is simply left in the fields to rot. Overall, ReFED estimates that 33% of all food in the U.S. – 78 million tons – goes to these waste destinations.

That’s almost 145 billion meals’ worth of food that we’re letting go unsold or uneaten each year, roughly 1.8% of U.S. GDP. And the impacts of surplus food and food waste on our climate and environment are enormous, since food that is never eaten still requires resources to grow, harvest, transport, cool, cook or otherwise prepare – even when it ends up being disposed of. Around the world, food waste has been recognized as an urgent issue requiring immediate action – the United Nations, U.S. Government, European Parliament, global business coalitions such as the Consumer Goods Forum, and more have all set goals to cut food loss and waste in half by 2025 or 2030.

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Climate and Natural Resources

When food goes uneaten, the resources used to produce it go to waste as well. If all of our country’s surplus food was grown in one place, this “mega-farm” would cover roughly 80 million acres, over three-quarters of the state of California. Growing the food on this wasteful farm would consume all the water used in California and Idaho combined. The farm would harvest enough food to fill a 40-ton tractor every 15 seconds. Many of those trailers would travel thousands of miles, distributing food to be kept cold in refrigerators and grocery stores for weeks. But instead of being purchased, prepared, and eaten, this perfectly good food would be loaded onto another line of trucks and hauled to a landfill, where it would emit a harmful stream of greenhouse gases as it decomposes.

Uneaten Food Consumes:

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Food Insecurity

One in eight Americans – many of them children – are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to sufficient, affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food. But much of what is considered "waste" isn't that at all – it's perfectly edible and could be going to help those in need.

1 in 7 Americans are food insecure
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In 2022, surplus food cost the country $473 billion. Of this, 90% – $428 billion – was due to food waste. While the financial cost of uneaten food is greatest for consumers, food surplus within all food industry sectors was worth about $221.5 billion.

Financial Cost of Food Waste

Where Does Surplus Food Occur?

Surplus food is often considered to be a singular problem, but it’s an entirely different situation for hundreds of tons of broccoli to go unharvested on a farm compared to a half-full platter of uneaten potatoes that’s scraped into the trash at home. Loss and waste occur at each stage of the supply chain, with the majority happening at consumer-facing businesses – including grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses that sell and serve food – and in homes. Food waste is systemic in nature, and it’s important to recognize that what happens at one stage is often influenced by something that happens at another stage, either upstream or downstream. For example, the farm mentioned above may not harvest all of its broccoli, because it doesn’t meet appearance specifications set by the retailers that purchase its produce – appearance standards the retailers established based on feedback received from the customers that shop in their stores.

Surplus Food Occurs Across the Supply Chain:

Where does food waste occur?
Which foods get wasted

Which Foods are Surplus?

More than three-quarters of surplus food comes from perishables, which include fruits and vegetables, meats, prepared fresh deli items, seafood, milk and dairy, and some grain products such as bread and bakery items. Perishables often get discarded, because they quickly go bad. In contrast, non-perishable foods — pastas, canned goods, and highly processed, shelf-stable products — are generally wasted less, because they don’t spoil as easily. Fruits and vegetables constitute more than a third of total food waste. Conversely, seafood and meats are the most expensive food types and the two least wasted.

Dive Deeper into the Data in the Insights Engine

What Causes Surplus Food?

The reasons for surplus food are numerous and complex across the food supply chain. Here are some insights into why it occurs:

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Food loss starts at the production level. Low market prices and high harvest costs often make it uneconomical for farmers to gather all that they produce. Strict cosmetic standards exclude imperfect-looking produce. Labor shortages cause further challenges. And despite gleaning and farm-to-food-bank efforts to recover this unharvested food, the vast majority is left in the fields and tilled under.

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A full 90% of surplus in food processing is byproduct – the peels, stems, bones, and other parts not used in the main product – and production line waste. Many of these trimmings, such as potato peels from french fry lines, are still edible. The wide variety of products sold causes inefficiencies as well – each time a production line is changed, it must be emptied and cleaned. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw how rigid processes caused some manufacturers to struggle to adjust their output to meet the needs of new customers with different product requirements – for example, smaller milk cartons for consumers stuck at home rather than larger containers for industrial markets.

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Customer demand for a variety and quality of food being readily available strains inventory management and food purchasing, and it can be difficult to change stocking practices or product sizes – especially when those practices are tied to a retailer's brand identity. High customer standards for freshness can lead businesses to dispose of safe, edible food based on a perception that it's past its prime – date label concerns account for more than 50% of food waste at the retail stage.

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Similar to retailers, foodservice customers expect a variety and quality of food to be available – and in the case of fast-food restaurants and other businesses with similar formats, customers expect it as soon as they place their order. Difficulty in forecasting, bulk purchasing, and improper storage can all lead to waste, along with preparation techniques that can leave usable food behind. But the majority of waste at the foodservice level – a huge 70% – is due to plate waste from customers who don’t eat all that they are served (or take from a buffet).

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Poor food management leads to spoilage and ultimately drives food waste in homes. Many consumer purchases are unplanned, which can lead to over-purchasing, and many families are tempted into bulk purchases of food they will never consume just to get a good deal on per-unit costs. Many consumers also lack the knowledge of how to repurpose ingredients and store food properly. Misunderstanding of date labels often leads consumers to throw away food before it’s spoiled. And many consumers have limited access to municipal food waste recycling programs and perceive barriers to composting at home.

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Barriers To Solutions Implementation

While solutions to reduce food waste exist, there are a range of reasons why they can be difficult to implement. Click on the arrows to explore some of these challenges:

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