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When food waste becomes a pollutant

Forty percent of food produced for consumption never gets eaten, instead filling landfills and releasing greenhouse gases. With a recent law, California aims to drastically reduce the amount of food that ends up in the ground.

BY Carolyn P. Rice, The Bill Lane Center for the American West
ClockMay 28, 2019

A bruised apple. A broccoli stem. A jar of tomato sauce with a March 1, 2019 expiration date – all destined for the dumpster.

Consumers and retailers in the United States send 52 million tons of food to landfills each year, according to an analysis by ReFED, an anti-waste nonprofit organization. This doesn’t include 11 million tons of food that farmers and processors can’t sell. The 63 million tons of food trashed represents one fifth of all the food produced. Add to that food that is sold as animal feed, turned into compost, or otherwise “recycled,” and 40 percent of the food produced to be eaten never is.

Food statsThe bill for this waste is huge. Those 52 million tons of food cost more than $200 billion to grow and move, according to ReFED. Decaying in the landfill, the waste produces greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions from 23 million cars each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Half the gas that seeps out of landfills is methane, the same gas emitted by cows and natural gas. Methane, like carbon dioxide, warms the planet, but more potently, although it does not last as long. The EPA estimates that landfills released one sixth of the country’s methane emissions in 2016.

Waste only recently became an environmental issue. In times past, avoiding waste showed thriftiness. In the postwar era, advances in agricultural technology encouraged farms to overproduce. Abundance made frugality less relevant as food became cheaper. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that food prices dropped steadily until the early 2000s; they are now rising. Still, American households spend 10 percent of their incomes on food, far less than in less wealthy nations.

Waste makes a statement. Not only does it squander resources, it also shows the cavalier attitude of the well-fed. The USDA reports one in ten Americans do not have enough good food.

Regulations to curb waste sprang up late in the last century. In 2015, the USDA and EPA announced a nonbinding goal of 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030. In 2016, though, California raised the stakes by passing the Short-Lived Climate Pollutants Act to reduce methane emissions. By 2025, the amount of organic waste that enters landfills must be reduced by 75 percent from 2014 levels. California, which leads the nation in agricultural production, is the only western state with a food-waste management program.

These state and federal goals recognize the importance of reducing waste, but are less specific on how to do it. Waste happens at many points from farm to fork, which means that there are many opportunities for intervention, and no all-encompassing solutions. Fresh food faces challenges ranging from weather, to time, to aesthetic standards, to human habits. A National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) video illustrates the many opportunities for waste by following the journey of a single strawberry.

Byxbee Park
Palo Alto’s Byxbee Park was formed from a onetime landfill. The pipes seen here are used to collect methane, which is captured under an impermeable layer and used to generate energy. The gas emanates from organic materials buried in the dump years ago. (Photo credit: Igor Krivokon / Creative Commons)

Wasting food is easier and cheaper than preventing waste

“We live in a world where not only is food cheap, but incomes are high,” said Marc Bellemare, Northrop Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. “It’s easy to waste food,” he said, even though consumers “know that wasting food is bad.”

Given the choice between eating potentially spoiled food and putting it in the trash, many consumers choose the trash. “Sell-by,” “best-by,” and “best before” guidelines carry authority; consumers will throw out edible food because its sell-by date has passed. However, these labels are not federally regulated and have no consistent meaning, according to a report by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the NRDC. One suggestion in a ReFED report: do away with these dates, which do more harm than good.

Compost
Image credit: Bill Lane Center for the American West

Another issue sprouts at the intersection of the food producer, the retail seller, and the consumer: aesthetics. Grocery stores have appearance standards for “quality” produce and will reject unusually sized or shaped (but edible) fruit and vegetables. “The way the chain stores and grocers operate, they want perfect-looking fruit to sell, which is perfectly understandable,” said Paul Wilson, a pear grower with Rivermaid Trading Company.

Not all food that farmers grow meets these standards, and it costs money to pick, ship, and store “off-grade” produce. It is often more cost-effective to leave off-grade produce on the field, according to Chris Drew, Vice President of Operations for Ocean Mist Farms, than to harvest and store it, only to have it rejected. If farmers till it back into the soil, it acts like fertilizer.

Ugly produce that arrives at a grocery store might be given away. “Say we get a large shipment of strawberries that doesn’t meet our quality standards, we would donate that whole package to the food bank,” said Diego Romero, Communications Manager for Sprouts Farmers Market, a national grocery chain.

For farms and grocers, getting food to places that won’t waste it – be it a compost facility or a food bank – can be costly, as fresh food has a high water content, making it heavy.

Food banks, which collect and distribute food to people who need it, often cover transportation and storage costs in return for free produce. Even so, some grocery stores do not have the capability to organize donations. “While most employees are eager to help, I often hear ‘I don’t have time for that,’” Shelby Senna, Food Sourcing Representative for Second Harvest Food Bank, wrote in an email.

Even food banks can’t serve everything they receive. “No matter how much we try to avoid waste, there’s always going to be bruised apples,” said Cat Cvengros, Vice President of Marketing and Development at Second Harvest. Second Harvest sends damaged produce to become animal feed, as does Sprouts.

Food donation

Does avoiding waste mean ignoring those in need?

Farmers sell substandard or surplus produce at a discount to processors such as canneries and baby food companies. Doing so isn’t lucrative, given the costs to harvest and ship it. If they have a local food bank that can come pick up the produce, many farmers choose to donate. “We want as much of this food to go to good use as possible,” said Wilson, of Rivermaid Trading Company.

A startup company, Imperfect Produce, aims to be a new destination for this food. Founded in 2015, Imperfect Produce aims to reduce waste by buying “ugly” and surplus produce from farmers and deliver it to individual subscribers. “You’ve got to just look at [Imperfect Produce] like any other customer that takes off-grade fruit, and there are a lot of them,” said Wilson.

Is there enough to go around? Some say no. Phat Beets Produce, a Berkeley-based community food justice organization, authored an op-ed that accused Imperfect Produce of profiting at the expense of the needy: “The reality is that this produce would have otherwise gone to food banks, to be redistributed for free.”

Imperfect Produce CEO Ben Simon responded that his company buys only a small portion of farmers' off-grade products – effectively arguing that there is plenty for all. Wilson concurs. “I really think there’s enough food out there for everybody,” he said.

Second Harvest
The Second Harvest Food Bank in San Jose, Calif. (Image credit: Carolyn P. Rice)

Getting food to people in Silicon Valley, where hunger is hidden

The recent California legislation requires that 20 percent of unsold but edible food be diverted to the hungry. “Food rescue” is what food banks have done since their inception in the 1960s; now, laws like this one formalize donations.

“The food rescue program is really important to us because we’re not only keeping food out of the landfills, we’re also helping feed people in our local communities,” said Romero, of Sprouts.

“Everyone knows Silicon Valley for having so much wealth and success, and yet we are serving more people at Second Harvest Food Bank since we have since the recession,” said Cvengros. Second Harvest Food Bank, a member of the Feeding America network and the California Association of Food Banks, serves one in ten people who live in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. “We’re not even close to meeting the need,” she added.

Why? “A lot of people are embarrassed,” said a longtime client of the Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto, who asked to be referred to as Pety. But she said she did not feel that way when her sister first took her there. And, she encourages others to come: “I send everybody here.”

Food banks and public resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program “have, over decades, become a fact of life in America,” said Garrett Broad, an assistant professor of communication at Fordham University.

In Silicon Valley, hunger can be hard to see. “You can make an assumption that someone who is homeless is probably hungry,” said Cvengros. “However, at Second Harvest, the majority of people we serve are in fact housed and probably working.”

Charlotte Brown, the resource and volunteer coordinator for the Ecumenical Hunger Program, said, “The majority of our clients work two or three jobs because it’s so incredibly expensive to work in the Bay Area.” She went on to say, “In all candor, I think most of us are about a minute from changing sides of the desk.”

This article was originally published by The Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Media Contacts

Felicity Barringer

The Bill Lane Center for the American West

febarr@stanford.edu

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