At a time of rising food prices and growing food insecurity, Americans are wasting more food than ever before—up 50 percent since the 1970s. Agriculture sucks up an incredible 80 percent of the United States’ freshwater supply and occupies 50 percent of its land. Ten percent of the total country’s energy budget goes towards getting food from the farm to consumers, yet two out of every five pounds of food is getting trashed. The Mindful Word spoke with Dana Gunder of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) about her report and what we can do about our wasteful ways.

It’s incredible that 40 percent of food is going to waste at a time when people are complaining about increasing food prices. What does the 40 percent cover and how did you collect this data?

Our report is a compilation of research that’s already out there. That number actually comes from a report by the National Institute of Health. They looked at the total food supply coming into the U.S. after imports and exports, calculating how many calories are available in our food supply and comparing that with how many calories people are wasting. It’s a rough estimate, but anyone in the industry would agree. I’ve gotten virtually no pushback from industry that we’re exaggerating the numbers.

That figure includes things that are avoidable and unavoidable. Sometimes waste can be avoided, sometimes not. We’re never going to get to 100 percent.

What’s defined as an unavoidable loss?

There’s a certain amount of spoilage in fresh produce and meat products: if a refrigerated truck breaks down and the stuff isn’t refrigerated anymore; when people harvesting the crops have a misstep and cut something in the wrong place; there may be a little bug mildew when they harvest their crops that they missed and that goes into the shipment and makes a whole bunch of the shipment go bad. We’re not perfect with food. It goes bad and some of that is going to happen.

What are the major sources of waste?

The biggest sources are later in the supply chain: the lettuce that goes bad in your fridge; the potatoes on the breakfast platter that you ordered at a restaurant when you didn’t really want the potatoes, you just wanted the omelette; or the toast that comes with it that you don’t eat.

We’re looking mostly at homes and restaurants. Grocery stores have a good amount of waste as well. On farms, sometimes when market conditions are not very favourable and prices are low, we’re seeing entire fields left unharvested because it would cost the farmer too much money to send a crew out. To me that’s a disaster. They’ve just spent however long to grow this crop and they put all the resources—water, land, energy—and then it’s like, “oh lettuce is 10 cents a pound today, forget it,” and then acres and acres of lettuce just get turned up.

What do you feel is the general public perception about waste?

I think this is an issue people really understand and care about. Everyone wants to tell you their story about it. “I always cut the mould off my cheese” or “my wife always makes me throw the yogourt out when I tell her it’s fine.” Everyone has something to say.

You don’t have to explain this to people. People know that we shouldn’t be wasting food. Where our awareness decreases is in relation to how much it takes to get food to the table: half the land in the U.S. goes towards food production; eighty percent of water consumption; all the chemicals that are polluting our waterways. There’s such a huge resource toll to produce food and that’s not what people are thinking about when they leave their potatoes on the breakfast platter. They’re thinking I’m on a low-carb diet or I don’t need to eat this much or I don’t like potatoes. There’s a disconnect there. In the abstract people seem to care about it quite a bit, but I don’t really know if it’s translating to awareness on the plate.

Do you feel the culture of fast food eating has devalued our perception of food?

I would say it’s both fast food and just dining out. There’s been a real increase in dining out. There’s a few implications of that. You may have gone to the store at the beginning of the week then Wednesday comes around and you’re like, Well, I’m tired, I just got home from work, Suzy called and wants to go out to eat. And you wind up going out to eat. It’s so easy to do that. It’s become such a habitual part of our week. There’s food going to waste at home because people are going out so much. It’s not translating to people buying less at home all the time.

The other thing is portions when you go out to eat. Ironically, I think fast food does a better job of offering flexible portions than almost any other dining segment out there. You can—not that people usually do and it’s not priced to incentivize this—but you can go into McDonald’s and buy a 59-cent single hamburger. That only has 250 calories and it may be a reasonable amount to eat for some people, but that’s not what they do, they buy the triple cheese bacon burger. But there are options unlike if you go to an Olive Garden or something and you just have one size: enormous. So I think portion sizes are leading the way. Either people are eating it, and that’s not good since it’s contributing to our obesity crisis, or they’re not eating it and it’s going to waste. Either way I think portion sizes are to blame quite a bit.

I can sympathize with restaurant owners because they feel they have to provide their customers with value since a good number of people feel cheated by small portion sizes. Do you see an alternative for restaurants?

Yes, they’re responding to the larger paradigm that exists. Furthermore to your point, their food costs are not the largest portion of their overall costs. So offering larger portions so people will pay a little bit more makes business sense because their real costs are their labour, real estate and the fixed costs, which makes it even more difficult. That’s where flexible portions come in. Yes, you can get the giant plate of pasta, but offer half-sized ones at two-thirds the price.

And as a culture we need to create a paradigm shift to pair down our whole need for more and more food.

What can people do on a personal level about reducing waste?

Awareness can go a long way. I don’t think this has been on people’s radar really. It’s not something people think about when they toss their sandwiches.

Freezers have a lot to offer. We could be freezing a lot more of our food when we don’t think we’re going to get around to using it.

Another important thing to understand is that virtually none of the expiration dates on food indicate when it has gone bad. They’re not meant to indicate safety, they’re meant to indicate when food is at peak quality. And they’re not regulated, they’re just manufacturer suggestions so a lot of people throw things out when they see the date. But with most products, there’s quite a bit of time left in which that product would still be good to eat.

What about on a systemic level. Can we do something about this?

There’s a few steps at the national, state or local level. I think we need to understand the problem better. It’d be helpful to have some real studies out there that characterize what’s going on at each level of the supply chain in a comprehensive way so that we know how to tailor our programs and where the biggest opportunities are and just what kind of behaviour is really leading to that. A lot of what is in my report is from studies that were done in the UK because there really haven’t been many done here.

I think that we should standardize date labelling so that that confusion I was just describing will not happen. Also, we as a nation could set targets to reduce our food waste following suit from Europe where they’ve set targets to reduce their food waste by 50 percent by 2020— a laudable, ambitious goal.

Also, just trying to create that culture where we’re valuing our food. Cooking more helps to do that. It also helps to reduce packaging, which is a whole other challenge. And just planning our meals, enjoying them and taking the time to really value what food has to offer.

There has been a 50 percent jump in U.S. food waste since the 1970s. Why is that?

It does go along with a parallel increase in portion sizes and plate sizes. The diameter of the average dinner plate has expanded over 30 percent in a similar time period. Our cookies have quadrupled in calories since the mid-80s. Pizza slices are 70 percent bigger than they were then. And we’ve also seen the Costco bulk buy model increase. Even though Costco seems like a great deal when you’re in the store, if you don’t get around to consuming all that you’re buying it may not be the best deal.

You’ve suggested that the U.S. government should conduct a comprehensive study of losses in our food system and set national goals for waste reduction just like the UK. Do you see that happening given the corporate influence in government? Food is big money. And wasting food makes big money for corporations that have an interest in seeing food wasted.

They do have an interest in seeing waste happen downstream to whoever they’re selling, but they don’t have an interest in seeing it in their own operations.

I think at least the first step is to try to get each entity to become as efficient as possible in their own operations and help them become aware of opportunities to reduce their own waste. Supermarkets have a certain amount of waste. They have traditionally just wrapped that into the cost of doing business. If they saw it as an opportunity to increase their own profitability, they would do so. Yes, everyone upstream might lose a few sales, but it’s in both the supermarkets and consumers’ self-interest to reduce waste.

We also live in a global market. If we really increase our efficiency here it might mean more food goes abroad, not that we produce less food. If you follow just the broad macroeconomic theory, increasing our efficiency and reducing losses here should decrease prices, at least a small amount, globally.