How Food Waste Hurts the Economy – And How You Can Help

The average family of four throws away about $1,500 worth of food each year. This food waste strains wallets, changes the way people buy food and can ultimately hurt the economy.
Aug 15, 2017 9:05 AM ET

PNC Point of View Real People. Real Perspective. Real Insights.

By Mekael Teshome

What would you do if you had an extra $1,500 in your bank account at the end of this year? What if you invested that money and had $20,000 or more ten years from now?

A few thousand dollars could help you jump start your retirement fund, save for an emergency or start planning for a child’s college education. You don’t have to sell off your belongings or invest in some questionable scheme. All you may have to do is think more carefully about the food you buy, eat and throw away.

The National Resources Defense Council estimates that each year, the average American family of four throws away about $1,500 worth of food.

Globally, one-third of all food is never consumed – from farmers or manufacturers discarding unusable items, to grocery stores tossing unsold or rotten produce, to consumers throwing away unused food.

Globally, people waste about $1 trillion of food each year, with a total economic impact of about $3 trillion each year if you consider the environmental and social costs of things like deforestation, soil erosion, increased greenhouse gases, water scarcity, exposure to chemicals and reduced profits for farmers. Food waste also drives up prices, reducing the number of people who can afford the healthy food they need.

On a local scale, this food waste is a lost opportunity to help feed the food insecure – those who don’t know where or when they’ll have their next meal. When adults don’t have consistent access to healthy food, their productivity can drop, their healthcare costs can rise, and in some cases, they could be unable to work due to chronic diseases. This can mean fewer productive people in the workplace, which puts a damper on the economy.

The stakes are even higher when children don’t have access to the healthy food they need. Food insecurity can influence their physical development and ability to learn. This can have lasting impacts into adulthood and that child’s ability to participate in the workforce.

How You Can Help

In the United States, we have a culture of plenty, meaning we don’t think we’re losing much by wasting resources – we believe we have plenty to go around. But that’s not necessarily good for our wallets – or the environment.

We know that retailers respond to consumer preferences. Right now, consumers want picture-perfect food, and that pressure extends all the way to farmers. But as consumers, we can change the way we shop, and it could have a dramatic effect on household budgets, health and the economy as a whole.

Look at it this way: if farmers and retailers can sell food that’s slightly imperfect – like a carrot that is misshapen, but otherwise normal – we can reduce waste. If we reduce waste, the price of food can be lower because there is more food available. It’s simple supply and demand.

Through my role as an economist and in my work with farmers at an agricultural college in Ethiopia, I’ve learned that consumers can help to gradually shift the culture to reduce food waste – and save some money in the process – by doing the following:

  • Make a list – Plan your meals for the week and make a list of the ingredients you will need for those recipes. Shop from your list and you will be less likely to make impulse buys, saving you money at the checkout and preventing you from throwing away unused food.
  • Don’t sweat the spots – Discolored or misshapen fruits and vegetables are usually just as tasty as their picture-perfect peers. If the store doesn’t sell them, they likely will end up in a dumpster. Some stores offer these “flawed” items at discounted prices – take advantage of them.
  • Know what dates mean – A sell-by date is an estimate of the food’s freshness. Many foods can be consumed safely after these dates if they have been stored properly. Look at the item or smell it for any signs that it’s past its prime.
  • Get creative – Find recipes that allow you to use an entire item, like sautéing thinly-sliced broccoli stems with the florets.
  • Store food properly – Learn where food has the longest life. Some foods may perish quickly on the countertop, but can stay fresh for weeks in your refrigerator. Learn how to properly freeze, can or pickle items so they last longer.
  • Save your leftovers – Merely putting your leftover dinner in a container doesn’t count. Remember to eat the leftovers to help reduce waste and trim your grocery bill.
  • Stay organized – Shuffle your refrigerator each week to bring older foods to the front, then make a plan to use them. Check your refrigerator regularly to keep tabs on what items should be used right away.
  • Track what you throw away – Keep a running list of what you most often throw away. If lettuce is always going in the trash, buy less of it. If you need an extra incentive, write down how much you paid for the item you threw away.
  • Donate it – If you know you won’t consume something, donate it to a food pantry to help feed others.

I once heard a farmer tell me there is a solution to every problem. As people create their own problems, they can create their own solutions.

Mekael Teshome is an economist at PNC Bank.