America’s Food Waste

  • It takes 25% of all the fresh water Americans use just to produce food that ends up being wasted. (Photo courtesy of Samara Freemark)

Government researchers recently put out a study that says American’s throw away forty percent of their food. Samara Freemark reports:


Americans waste a lot of food – by some estimates, almost half of the total amount in the food supply. Samara Freemark reports that the problem goes way beyond cleaning your plate.

A couple of months ago, government researchers put out a study that said Americans waste 40% of their food.

When I read that figure, it seemed incredibly high. So high that when I sat down with a food policy expert, I was actually a little embarrassed to ask her about it.

“I saw this number, 40%. Is that possible? It seems high to me.”

“I think the wasting of 40% of food, I actually think that could be a low number.”

That’s Jennifer Berg. She’s the director of the graduate program in food studies at New York University, and she spends a lot of time thinking about the food waste problem – in particular, about its huge environmental impacts.

It turns out, it takes 25% of all the fresh water Americans use just to produce food that eventually ends up in the garbage. It takes a lot of fuel to move that food around; packaging it takes plastic and paper, and throwing it away fills up landfills.

“There’s that old, you know ‘an orange peel…’ An orange peel takes years to break down. You know, a banana peel, half a loaf of bread. All that stuff goes into landfills. It doesn’t matter whether it’s organic matter or not. It doesn’t decompose. It doesn’t break down, when it’s all put together like that.”

Berg says Americans get plenty of messages about cleaning their plates.

But they don’t necessarily understand how much food gets wasted before it even makes it to the table.

“If you think about meat. Other countries, they will consume 85% of a cow. We will consume 30%. 20%. We only eat very specific cuts. We want our food totally filleted, we want it boned. We just eat very very specific food.”

I wanted to see what a waste-free meal looked like, so I took a trip to EN Japanese brasserie in Manhattan.

For the past couple of months, EN Brasserie has hosted special dinners where customers pay good money to eat the kinds of things most Americans throw away.

Reika Alexander owns the restaurant. She came up with the idea for the dinners when she moved to New York and saw how much food people in the city threw out.

“I realized that New Yorkers create so much garbage. When I saw that my heart was really aching. We have to do something about that.”

Alexander showed me some of the food she’d be serving that night. The first thing she handed me was a plate of fried eel backbones.

“We import live eels. So we get the whole thing. So we deep fry the bone part. It’s like a really flavorful rice cracker. Want to try. You just eat it? Like the bone? The whole bone? It’s good, right? It’s really good. The bones just fall apart in your mouth.”

There was a platter of rice topped with scraps of fish and vegetable trimmings. A salad made from salmon skin. And a cauldron of soup with whole fish heads bobbing in the broth.

“The eye, it’s so flavorful and delicious. The fish eyes have so much flavor. It makes a beautiful fish stock.”

At the dinner that night I asked college student Cordelia Blanchard what she was eating.

“I don’t know. I think the idea is that what’s left over the chefs just throw in a pot, and that’s what we have the pleasure of eating tonight. It makes me want to be more creative about how I combine what’s left in the kitchen sink.”

Which is the kind of attitude that restaurant owner Reika Alexander likes. Still, she says, she doesn’t expect the average American to sit down to a dinner of eel bones and fish eyes any time soon.

For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark

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